1940-1945 Best Picture Winners Reviewed
An Academy plunged in the war effort, with an eye for good morale, still makes room for a diverse quintet of films with generous doses of romance, sentiment, and sometimes suspense; two war films and one that (slightly) leapfrogs them all.
Rebecca, 1940 directed by Alfred Hitchcock
13th Academy Awards
A palpably Gothic and phantasmic atmosphere, plus a trio of very different but equally powerful archetype turns by Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson shape Rebecca into a hauntingly watchable and diverting psychodrama. This arresting adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel follows the new Mrs. de Winter (Fontaine) as she assimilates into the life, and estate, of the widowed Maxim de Winter (Olivier). Their newfound relationship is tortured, and overshadowed, by the passing of his first wife and the ghostly presence of the stony Mrs. Danvers (Anderson). Olivier is bullish, short-tempered but also suave and mysterious — a dangerous brew. Classic Hollywood actresses were always expressive, think of that slight eyebrow raise during a passionate face-to-face, but I've never seen someone emote as much as Fontaine does here. She exhaustingly contorts her face to present a neurotic and naïve, yet always enchanting interpretation of the adage "in over your head". She is nameless, burdened by the eponymous first bride, weighed down by manipulation but still a considerable presence. It’s a tricky mix that Fontaine masters. Though she was only nominated here, she would win 1942’s Oscar for Suspicion, in a move, some would call a sympathy/reconciliation award. Rebecca was exactly what I was craving, an old Hollywood film with twists and turns, where revelations meet a swelling orchestra and there's just pure talent on screen. It also doesn't hurt that Hitchcock directed. An intoxicating achievement that holds itself together well, and a stimulating palette cleanser in the face of the 2020 remake that was as flaccid as a limp wrist.
How Green Was My Valley, 1941 directed by John Ford
14th Academy Awards
Of all the films to gain a bitter reputation from an Oscars decision, no work deserves the hate less than John Ford’s sensitive and touching portrayal of a Welsh mining town, and its evolution, through the generational lens of reminiscence. That preconception of inferiority, even when the film won the Academy's top prize, are particularly stirred by How Green Was My Valley defeating Citizen Kane to the clincher. On the matter, I’ll say that Valley is an emotionally triumphant feature that does one thing spectacularly right — by leaning on the proven success of nostalgia, it easily resonates while calmly making a pointed statement about livelihoods, politics and religion, sugarcoated with romance, wit and goodhearted familial fondness. Citizen Kane seems to grow with age; Valley goes straight for the heart. Aside from the presiding elephant in the room, How Green Was My Valley remains a tender, softly paced experience, well worth a redefinition in cinematic history. In hindsight, Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography triumph over Citizen Kane might seem outrageous but don’t discredit the former's beauty — even when the sentiment stalls, the frame is always gorgeous. Miller couples rich close-ups of the village people with generous and painted images of the valley. There's even deep focus for good measure (Citizen Kane, eat your heart out). With that, How Green Was My Valley becomes less ‘the film that beat Citizen Kane,’ and more a deeply rewarding visit, filled with both visual splendour and emotional wonder.
Mrs. Miniver, 1942 directed by William Wyler
15th Academy Awards
Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, one of three Best Picture winners from the alliterative director, and my personal favourite of that trio, tells an unimaginable time-specific story that effortlessly transcends decades in its resolve. Mrs. Miniver shares the lives of the Miniver family, helmed by the titular matriarch Kay (Greer Garson) and their middle-class British village as World War II looms. Characteristically a wartime film, (even the end title seeks war bonds), and one that was rewritten as America’s neutrality shifted, Mrs. Miniver reverberates deeper for the way it juggles the model of the resilient mother, and housewife, with the weight of hope and duty. Miniver’s most profound moments shine when it modestly replicates the all-too-real inevitability of the fight — when dogfights soar and bombs rain down, a quiet sermon is held in a rubbled church; the Minivers frolic in their wrecked home. Wyler’s film runs away from pity, headfirst into the arena of patriotic duty and commiseration. It speaks to the emotional strength held behind appearances even as the world crumbles, and it rests surely on Garson’s shoulders. She anchors the story, even steals the show, while confidently reflecting the people's will, all in that controlled visage. Her darting eyes as explosions ring nearby, nervous but not nerve-racked, and her stoically strong frame created a much-needed paradigm for Allied viewers. An unfailing example that proves how an actor can push their film to greatness, and in turn, mirror a generation.
Casablanca, 1942 directed by Michael Curtiz
16th Academy Awards
Smart, radical and gripping so many decades later, Casablanca achieves what so many Best Picture winners from its time could only dream of, all by avoiding the pitfalls of dated cinema through innovation. Still rings with modernity not because it’s timely, but for the way a timeless tale is told with such fervent passion and bygone Old Hollywood style. Casablanca famously tells the World War II-era story of nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and the emotional struggle he grapples with when former lover Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and her fugitive husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) show up in town. Curtiz crafts a film of superlatives, supported by an ingenious screenplay and an ever-capable cast. Rick is potentially Bogart’s best role. It's also perhaps the most beguiling Bergman was in her career, as she plays Ilsa behind a pained yet steadfast façade. The script is not quotable in a peppery, showboat sense but for its brilliant, tautly designed fashion that allows line after line to resound through years of mediocre writing. Remains a gripping and densely rewarding watch — thinking about how it pieces itself together, in elusive and mysterious fashion, already has me foaming at the mouth. Essentially a war film infused with wistful romance, it covers all bases with cleverness and tact speed — international espionage, betrayal, reconciliation, melodrama and monologues, oh my. Everyone seems to find themselves in Casablanca, their palpable dreams and movements bogged down by the constrictions of war. More than enough time to allow tempers from the past to catch up. And in that city, lies Rick’s American Café, the centrifugal force, so close to the airport where planes fleeing for an unoccupied world take off. If you’re watching Casablanca for the first time, congrats, but ensure to break free from preconceptions and let it precisely reveal its soul. Or, if you’re like me, revisiting it years down the track, there are still polished gems waiting to be found in this refined cinematic treasure trove.
Going My Way, 1944 directed by Leo McCarey
17th Academy Awards
Bing Crosby is likely the reason modern-day viewers might view this work, and although the film is ostensibly a vehicle for the crooner’s cool demeanour and talent, the car, in a bid to stay clean, comes off unpolished. Calculatedly schmalzy, McCarey’s film, which steers away from the director’s unabashed screwball past, tracks Father O’Malley (Crosby), an unorthodox new priest who takes over a parish run by the established and old-fashioned Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). Exuding a pungently sweet punch that withers into a bland aftertaste, Going My Way does not offer much to modern audiences. You can see the film for what it was trying to be, and maybe even appreciate what it seeks out to do but the result is nevertheless, dull. For its overlong runtime, the emotions are static, and songs are somehow both uplifting yet weighed down by unimaginative staging. If you knew about Barry Fitzgerald’s Oscar trivia as the only actor (accidentally) nominated twice for the same performance, you’d believe he pulled in a thunderous performance but even his role feels secondhand and blasé. A mostly forgettable affair becomes something the Academy embraced for its uplifting message, tunes, and its crowd-pleasing, spirit rousing affair as the world neared the end of the Second World War. By doing so, they ignored the much darker, yet infinitely more rewarding nominee, Double Indemnity.