Friday, May 27, 2011

Top Ten Oscar Travesties of the Golden Age: #1

The #1 Oscar travesty of the Golden Age

Double Indemnity fails to win Best Picture in 1944.

It would help to get inside the Academy’s mindset in early 1945 in order to try and comprehend why one of the greatest of all crime dramas lost Best Picture to the relentlessly cheery and sentimental Going My Way.

It was early 1945 and World War II was near its end. The Academy, wishing to send an “uplifting” message to the world, chose the movie about two Irish Catholic priests trying to save their parish instead of the film about an adulterous and murderous couple killing the woman’s husband for the policy benefits. What’s not wholesome about the entrepreneurial spirit? That’s as powerful an illustration of the human spirit as teaching some incorrigible boys to sing, isn’t it? You mean it isn’t?

The single greatest Oscar travesty of the Golden Age is Going My Way 's Best Picture victory over Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The latter is the first truly brilliant Film Noir and the first time the writer-director gave the movie going audience a glimpse of his greatness. Never again would Wilder be as chilling or ruthless (that includes 1951’s Ace in the Hole) without the trademark Wilder humor. The very title “Double Indemnity” forever changed an insurance policy term into thought-association trigger words for cold-blooded murder.

The primary reason Double Indemnity didn’t win is because the story and characters are just so unappealing! The sweaty-lipped Fred MacMurray-as Walter Neff is the epitome of slime and Barbara Stanwyck is the definitive Black Widow, Phyllis Dietrichson.

Another reason why it lost was no doubt due to the popularity of Bing Crosby, whose multimedia power was second to none during the ‘30s and ‘40s. It's also worth noting that the tenor of those times helped the Crosby vehicle win scads of awards, so it’s no wonder Going My Way emerged as the Best Picture winner. However, in retrospect, Going My Way represents the toothless and overly-sentimental type of movie that gives classic film a bad name. Noir, on the other hand, has emerged as all that is stylish about great cinema. Double Indemnity is a work of art. The cinematography, music, set direction, and especially its dialogue serve to create the perfect cinematic environment, whereas Going My Way looks like a series of indoor sets. Double Indemnity creates a vivid Los Angeles of the mind. If the stories of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler (co-author of the screenplay), and Double Indemnity's author, James M. Cain could come to life in our most vivid imaginings, they would look exactly like Double Indemnity. The film’s atmosphere is smothering in its oppressiveness. Every flickering frame of this movie is sinister, and evil. Only the mighty presence of Edward G. Robinson emerges from the dreariness. The film is leagues ahead of the other Best Picture nominees:

Gaslight- Gothic psychological thriller that was the second-best movie of the five films nominated.
Going My Way- That Barry Fitzgerald movie.
Since You Went Away- Sentimental and mawkish to the extreme, though the ending is guaranteed to produce a couple of tears.
Wilson- Heavily sanitized biopic of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; the kind of movie “designed” to win Oscars.

When watching these five films, I can’t help but think how of their time the other four are, but Double Indemnity is like some undying evil that only grows in stature with each subsequent viewing. As many times as I’ve seen it, the murder scene still has the ability to produce unbearable tension. Billy Wilder’s first bona fide masterpiece had no business losing to those other efforts by directors whose best work was in the previous decade. McCarey peaked with The Awful Truth, and Cukor with The Philadelphia Story. The other two, John Cromwell of Since You Went Away and Henry King of Wilson, were essentially competent, but journeymen directors; though to be fair, King had a couple of good efforts left in him in the 1940s yet his work comes nowhere near that of Wilder’s, largely regarded as the best writer-director of all time, which subsequent Oscar award ceremonies would prove; just not in 1944, when the Academy should’ve recognized how special a talent he was.


  1. I agree that Double Indemnity was head and shoulders above all the other nominees that year, but what I agree more with is your analysis of why it did not win. The politics of the Academy Awards is the true travesty - awarding films or people for reasons other than the work (how many times has a director or actor won for a mediocre film merely to reward them for a body of work.) The real travesty is how much we invest in these awards that rarely have honored the truly great and innovative films.

  2. I feel I am one of the few people who enjoys Going My Way.

    That being said YES YES YES. I completely agree with this. Double Indemnity is one of the best films ever made and it definitely deserved the Oscar. But then again I guess it is in good company with many other great films that lost (or weren't even nominated).

  3. I agree completely also! :)

  4. C.K., you've hit ten out of ten with this one. I like some of the other nominated films more than you (for example, "Going My Way" and "Since You Went Away"), but there's no doubt that "Double Indemnity" is far and away the best. It's the only real masterpiece among them. I would go even further than you and call this THE best film noir ever. It's certainly my favorite. A further travesty is that Barbara Stanwyck didn't win for best actress. These losses are not surprising, however, when you consider that the Academy has traditionally awarded Oscars to pictures and actors who project the best image for Hollywood and the film industry. Thus cheery wholesomeness like "Going My Way" almost always triumphs over bleak visions of life like "Double Indemnity." And victims like Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight" (an excellent performance but not as good as Stanwyck's) triumph over villains like Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson.

  5. One thing that weighed heavily on my mind during the making of this list was whether or not to include Alfred Hitchcock's never getting Best Director based solely on his legndary reputation. Yet I don't feel strongly about his work one way or the other to have included him here. Are most of his movies enjoyable? Yes, but there's just something about his work that hasn't "hooked" me and I just don't know why that is. I guess that's what I prefaced this countdown with the "this is my personal list" disclaimer.

  6. "Going My Way" is a Paramount example (as opposed to a Louis B. Mayer MGM example) of why 1940s movies were so relentlessly sanctimonious.

    Here's a hypothetical "what if," however: Suppose that instead of "Double Indemnity," the fifth best picture candidate was Preston Sturges' "The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek," a film I adore for its subversiveness. Does it beat out "Gaslight" in your mind?

  7. I actually really like Going My Way and Since You Went Away is one of my favorite, probably not the best judge here. I do think Double Indemnity is a great film, etc. but it just didn't really interest me that much personally. Robinson was terrific, though, and such a force of energy on screen.

  8. Nice job on this series. Of course I'm happy that this ended up in the top spot, and your reasoning is as impeccable as usual.

    I disagree with the first commenter, Bill, in that the politics of the Academy, and how much we invest in them, are a travesty. I adore the awards and accept them exactly for what they are. Much of my personal fascination with classic film is a result of the annual celebration of movies that is the Academy Awards - and I'm sure the same can be said of many others. I've never been under the illusion that the awards existed to honor the truly great and innovative films (though they have done so, particularly from a technological point of view). And even if they did, we'd have just as many issues with snubs, slights, and travesties as we do today. Take a look at the "top 100" lists generated by Time magazine, the AFI, and popular blogs like The Moving Arts. They don't get it "right" either, or even "righter" than the Oscars, despite their attempt to do so. On one hand we have these and other critical attempts, on the other a coldly populist approach such as the IMDb 250, with the Academy straddling a fence somewhere in the middle. It's a broad spectrum of taste with a graph upon which we would each certainly situate ourselves -- the Academy Awards merely occupy their particular square. In the end, the spectrum of film is so broad and diverse that we can't all agree, and the Oscars end up serving exactly the purpose they were intended for: celebrating Hollywood.

    And don't forget that if we all could be voters, your dispassionately reasoned ballot for Clint Eastwood, Robert Downey Jr., or Denzel Washington would have been cancelled out by mine, who just thought Al Pacino ought to have an Oscar.

    I'm just glad they exist so we'll all have something to talk about.

  9. "WILSON" was nominated for Best Picture? Really? I recall Roddy McDowall, who saw the movie on numerous occasions during the film's premiere tour, ended up calling it the "dreaded WILSON". He always fell asleep before the movie ended.

    Billy Wilder received some kind of . . . retribution, so to speak, by tripping Leo McCarey, while the latter was rushing up the aisle to receive his Best Director Oscar.


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