Top of the World, Ma!

White Heat is one of the greatest gangster movies I’ve ever seen. Yet it was only nominated for Best Story at the Academy Awards. Like so many other classics, I only knew White Heat for the famous and often misquoted closing line “Made it ma! Top of the world.” Ironically it was my own ma who strongly recommended I watch the movie. James Cagney broke typecast when he starred in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but returning to the tough guy roles that made him famous was his only option in the late 40’s. Cagney didn’t get along with Warner Bros, so it was an awkward reunion.

White Heat delves deep into the twisted mind of a gangster. Arthur “Cody” Jarrett is the remorseless head of a criminal gang. Though he seems heartless on the surface, Cody is a serious mama’s boy who tries to make her proud. Even though “Ma” is every bit the criminal mastermind he is. After a great train robbery, the Jarret gang hideout in Los Angeles till the heat dies down. The U.S. Treasury stays hot on their tail when Cody gives himself up. Most of the movie takes place in jail where undercover agent Hank Fallon is tasked with getting information out of Cody.

There’s betrayal and close calls around every corner. After playing a similar character in The Best Years of Our Lives, Virginia Mayo now plays Cody’s wife Verna who betrays her incarcerated husband for “Big Ed.” When Cody escapes to rob a chemical plant, it’s all over for him when Hank contacts the police. Not only does Cody suffer from debilitating headaches, but he goes completely insane with one last rampage. It costs him his life, but he’s finally on top of the world. Cagney made the role his own and should have been recognized for it, because White Heat goes out in a blaze of glory.

White Heat

“Made it Ma! Top of the World!”

We Donโ€™t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre may be the finest depiction of greed ever put to film. This kind of story has been retold and parodied so many times, but nothing can top the original. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on the 1927 B. Traven novel of the same name. Director John Huston hit the ground running with The Maltese Falcon, but it’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that became his magnum opus. It’s another technically perfect movie with a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

With the expectation of Best Picture (which went to Hamlet), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre swept the Academy Awards. Huston won twice for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and his own father won Best Supporting Actor. It’s truly baffling that Humphrey Bogart wasn’t nominated, since this is easily one of his all time best performances. Bogart plays one of three prospectors searching for gold in Mexico. The down on his luck Dobbs grows increasingly paranoid and wants all the gold for himself. Even if he has to betray and/or kill his comrades to keep it.

Tim Holt plays the much more neutral Curtin who tries to keep his friend on the straight and narrow. Walter Huston won for playing Howard. Howard is a classic cheerful prospector with the most knowledge about gold mining. He popularized the term “fool’s gold.” Dobbs is a definite villain by the end, but there’s an even bigger threat in Mexico. Gold Hat and his bandits are constantly on their tail. You may know them for the often misquoted line “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” The movie ends with a harsh, but justified lesson that greed will make a man go insane. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is pure gold.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

A boy tries to sell to Dobbs

I Was Jewish for Six Months

Gentleman’s Agreement is a universal look at prejudice. Based on the Laura Z. Hobson book about a journalist pretending to be Jewish in order to understand their daily struggles. Unlike The Life of Emile Zola, anti-semitism is far more openly discussed. Of course by then the war was over, but that didn’t stop the film from gaining controversy. Something Best Director winner Eli Kazan is no stranger to. Ironically it was the same kind of people that the movie shines a spotlight on. Gentleman’s Agreement is about anti-semitism, but it can honestly be applied to any minority.

The movie Crossfire was originally about homosexuality before it was changed to anti-semitism as well. Both 1947 movies were nominated for Best Picture, but Gentleman’s Agreement ended up winning. Though it’s not so much the film’s quality as it is the message. Gentleman’s Agreement surprisingly looks at prejudice from every angle. Phil Green encounters outright anti-semites, people trying to hide their prejudice, people who are unconsciously prejudice, and even self-hating Jews. It was interesting seeing a young Gregory Peck talk about race decades before playing Atticus Finch.

Phil tells most of the people he meets that he’s Jewish, but only a small circle of people know he’s a Gentile. There’s his sick mother played by Anne Revere and his son Tommy played by a young Dean Stockwell. Phil has to explain prejudice to a child and deal with his son being bullied for it. He gets help from his Jewish friend Dave Goldman and his boss’ niece Kathy. Phil and Kathy fall in love, but his Jewish lifestyle makes her feel more prejudice than she actually is. Dorothy McGuire is great at portraying the inner conflict, but only Celeste Holm ended up winning Best Supporting Actress playing a close friend. Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t an easy discussion piece, but it is a necessary one.

Gentleman's Agreement

Phil and Kathy attend a party

Glory for Me

The Best Years of Our Lives is as relevant today as it was in 1946. After Mrs. Miniver, director William Wyler focused on a different side of the war. When World War II ended, a big question was how its veterans would adjust to civilian life? The Best Years of Our Lives is a near masterpiece that just about swept the Academy Awards. Its 7 wins include Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. The source material Glory for Me is only a novella since the war ended a few short months ago. The movie on the other hand, is nearly 3 hours long, but I barely noticed since the story is so captivating.ย 

The Best Years of Our Lives centers around three distinctly different WWII veterans of varying branches, ranks, and backgrounds all struggling to re-adjust. Dealing with PTSD in a frank and honest manner. Fredric March won his second Oscar as Army Sergeant Al Stephenson. Al has a traditional all-American family to go home to. Myrna Loy plays his loving wife Milly, Oscar winner Teresa Wright plays his responsible older daughter Peggy, and he also as a teenage son named Rob who’s barely around. Al gets blind drunk at first, but he soon finds comfort in helping fellow veterans at the bank. Dana Andrews wasn’t nominated for his portrayal of Air Force Captain Fred Derry. Even though Fred is in the sadly relatable situation of returning to a wife who no longer loves him and the same crappy drug store soda jerk job he had when he left. Virginia Mayo is the perfect wrench playing Fred’s wife Marie who uses him for his money and uniform.

Producers worked closely with real life veterans, but nothing could top casting real life WWII veteran Harold Russell as Navy Officer Homer Parrish. Russell actually lost his hands in the war, so Homer’s hook hands were very real. So is his raw performance that made him the first non-professional actor to win an Oscar. He also received an Honorary Oscar as a thank you for his service. Homer’s greatest struggle is trying to feel normal upon returning to his parents, sister, and the girl next door. Homer’s girlfriend is played by the equally inexperienced Cathy O’Donnell. Al, Fred, and Homer become fast friends, but their stories only converge when they reunite at Homer’s Uncle Butch’s bar. Homer makes an impression, but he isn’t given the same amount of attention as Al or Fred. They’re together more often since Fred falls in love with Al’s daughter Peggy. It’s a sweet romance that brings hope to Fred’s difficult re-adjustment. The Best Years of Our Lives gives veterans the respect they deserve.

The Best Years of Our Lives

Al, Fred, and Homer reunite with their families

The Bottle

The Lost Weekend is a brutally honest look at the dangers of alcoholism. Even a film as old as 1945 could depict addiction without fear of censorship. The Lost Weekend is so simple, yet so powerful. Quickly becoming one of my top favorite Best Picture winners. Legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder won his first of many Oscars for Best Director. The Lost Weekend also won Best Adapted Screenplay for a script based on the Charles R. Jackson book of the same name. Jackson himself was a struggling alcoholic who wrote from the heart.

It’s shockingly realistic, but the movie does cut out any gay subtext found in the book. Ray Milland gives an all time Best Actor winning performance as Don Birnam. Don is a failed writer with an overwhelming urge to drink. Milland’s desperation is believable, heartbreaking, and even terrifying. Wilder uses a noir aesthetic to play up the more horrific side effects of alcoholism. As Don battles his demons, the people in his life either stay by his side or give up on him.

As the title suggests, The Lost Weekend takes place over the course of one eventful weekend. Don uses his brother Wick to buy booze, urges bartender Nate to fill his glass, hides bottles around the house, leads on Gloria for drinking money, resorts to stealing, goes on a bender, and continually lies to his girlfriend Helen. Jane Wyman gives the second best performance as the only remaining person who believes Don can get better. When a rehab facility fails to treat him, Don even contemplates suicide. The Lost Weekend should be required viewing for anyone struggling with addiction.

The Lost Weekend

Don Birnam drinks

Would You Like to Swing on a Star

Going My Way is the right way to go. Singer Bing Crosby was a big star in the 1940’s with hits like Holiday Inn. Not only did Going My Way win Best Picture, Crosby also won Best Actor for his portrayal of Father Chuck O’Malley. The charming young priest was practically tailor-made for Crosby. Father O’Malley is an unconventional priest who plays golf, attends sporting events, and sings his own songs. “Going my way” is his motto for bringing joyful noise to the gospel. Going My Way centers around Father O’Malley joining a struggling parish and having a positive effect on the people around him.

Though most of the subplots feel disconnected until the end. His primary relationship is between the much older church pastor Father Fitzgibbon. O’Malley and Fitzgibbon couldn’t be more different, but they develop a mutual understanding. Barry Fitzgerald is arguably a co-lead, but in the end he’s more of a supporting player. The Academy didn’t see it that way since he was both nominated for Best Actor and won Best Supporting Actor. Leo McCarey did win multiple awards for Best Director and Best Original Motion Picture Story on top of Best Picture.

O’Malley’s other relationships include his equally laid back colleague Father O’Dowd, opera singing former flame Jenny, young aspiring singer Carol, father & son mortgage handlers, and a group of troubled youths that he transforms into a boys choir. Going My Way won Best Screenplay, but it’s the music that stands out. Crosby’s smooth crooning vocals are great for familiar songs and originals like “The Day After Forever,” the titular “Going My Way,” and catchy Best Original Song winning “Swinging on a Star.” Father O’Malley leaves when his job is done, but his mission continues in The Bells of St. Mary’s. I’ll look at the sequel at a later date since I had no idea it existed despite its equal acclaim. Going My Way is just a bit more worthy of praise.

Going My Way

“Would you like to swing on a star”

Followed by: The Bells of St. Mary’s

Mother Mary Comforts Me

The Song of Bernadette cast a Heavenly light on Hollywood. It was the most nominated and most awarded film at the Academy Awards. Although it won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, the Oscar belonged to Casablanca. The Song of Bernadette is based on a 1941 novel based on the life of Bernadette Soubirous. I’m not Catholic, so I was never aware of the dearly departed young saint. In the French town of Lourdes during the 1800’s, Bernadette claimed to see visions of the Virgin Mary calling herself the “Immaculate Conception.”

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the many miracles and holy story. As a Christian, it’s just nice to see faith emphasized in a major Hollywood production. The Song of Bernadette is nearly 3 hours, but I was invested from beginning to end. A big reason is the young Jennifer Jones who was only 25 when she won Best Actress. She captures Bernadette’s strong belief so naturally. Never wavering even in the face of overwhelming doubt and criticism. Overtime, Bernadette manages to convince her impoverished family, most of Lourdes, and her questioning priest Father Peyramale.

Local prosecutors are tougher to convince. Especially one played by an overly skeptical Vincent Price. Though no one can deny the miracle water that flows from the Grotto where Mary was seen. When Bernadette is sent to a convent, the resentful Sister Vauzou is the final person to convince. Charles Bickford, Gladys Cooper, and Anne Revere were all nominated alongside Jones. The only other wins were for Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Scoring. The Song of Bernadette is truly blessed.

The Song of Bernadette

Bernadette enters a convent as Sister Marie Bernarde

Onward, Christian Soldiers

Mrs. Miniver is the first of many World War II films to win Best Picture. Predating Casablanca by one year. Since 1942 was at the height of WWII, Mrs. Miniver couldn’t help but lean into propaganda. Although the movie is more war adjacent than a straightforward war film. It’s told from the perspective of its title character. Mrs. Kay Miniver is an average everyday English housewife created by Jan Struther for a newspaper column. William Wyler won his first of three Best Director Oscars for the film. Other awards include Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay. The script couldn’t have been easy to write with the war changing so rapidly. Yet Mrs. Miniver is both topical and thoroughly engrossing.

Nearly every cast member was nominated, but it’s Greer Garson who commands the screen with her career making performance. Kay is a loving wife and mother who indulges herself before the war breaks out. Walter Pidgeon was nominated for his performance as Kay’s caring husband Clem. Like Cavalcade before it, Mr. and Mrs. Miniver are determined to keep their children safe in times of war. Their children are the sweet Judy, chatty Toby, and grown up Oxford graduate Vin. The plot is mostly divided with the war raging in the background. Mrs. Miniver has a rose named after her by the kindly Mr. Ballard played by an Oscar nominated Henry Travers. Clem is called to fight in Dunkirk, but it’s all left to our imagination. What we do see is a very intense confrontation between Mrs. Miniver and an injured Nazi pilot. Of course the scene had to be reshot when America entered the war.

Vin joins the Air Force and develops a passionate romance with Carol Beldon. Teresa Wright also deserved her Best Supporting Actress win playing a different kind of war bride. Dame May Whitty was only nominated for her scene stealing portrayal as Carol’s grandmother Lady Beldon. Her arc involves a rose competition that tests her newfound acceptance of the Miniver family. You truly feel the devastation of the war when bombs drop on their fallout shelter and unexpected casualties start to add up. Although propaganda in nature, the final speech at a ruined church followed by a rendition of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is enough to inspire anyone. There is a 1950 sequel titled The Miniver Story, but it wasn’t nearly as acclaimed. A rose by any other name would be Mrs. Miniver.

Mrs. Miniver

Mr. and Mrs. Miniver protect their children

Followed by: The Miniver Story

Citizen Plain

How Green Was My Valley is the movie that beat Citizen Kane. Making it one of the earliest upsets in the Best Picture race. It’s a shame How Green Was My Valley developed that reputation, because it is worthy in its own right. It was the second year in a row that John Ford won for Best Director. Both The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley were based on best-selling novels and both deal with similar themes of family struggling through hard times. The latter is set in a Welsh mining community.

Although Citizen Kane is far more ambitious, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction were also worthy wins that brought the valley setting to life. Like the Joads, the Morgans are a large tight-knit family that struggle to stay together. There’s the old fashioned patriarch Gwilym, caring matriarch Beth, only daughter Angharad, five grown up sons Ianto, Ivor, Davy, Gwilym Jr., Owen, and youngest son Huw. Most of the movie is seen through Huw’s young eyes as he’s forced to grow up and become a man. A very young Roddy McDowall commands the screen several years before he went ape.

Donald Crisp won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Gwilym. Not counting Ivor’s wife Bronwen, Angharad is the one female family member with the best arc. She falls for dashing local pastor Mr. Gruffydd. Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pidgeon have plenty of chemistry, but Gruffydd is just as instrumental in Huw’s life. The scene where Gruffydd encourages Huw to walk again being a particular stand out. Although a mining strike, pregidous teachers, scandal, and a fire threaten to tear apart the family, the greenness of the valley will never be forgotten. Citizen Kane will be remembered, but How Green is My Valley will never die.

How Green Was My Valley

Mr. Gruffydd helps Huw walk again

I’ll Be There

The Grapes of Wrath is a great American film, based on a great American novel. Of Mice and Men author John Steinbeck had both of his most famous books adapted around the same time. The Grapes of Wrath is objectively flawless with a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a wonder it didn’t win Best Picture, but Rebecca was just the kind of recognition Alfred Hitchcock deserved. Even though John Ford ended up winning Best Director. It’s hard to believe there wasn’t a Best Cinematography nomination. Since there’s a tremendous amount of atmosphere. Despite the pulitzer prize winning source material, The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t completely follow the original story.

Most of the harsher moments and the infamous “breastfeeding scene” are taken out. Yet the movie still manages to capture the many struggles and hardships faced by the Joad family. When the Great Depression strikes, the Joads are forced out of there Oklahoma home. They head west to California in a beat up old truck with very little money and not much help from outsiders. The large Joad clan consists of Ma, Pa, Grandpa, Grandma, Uncle John, Tom, Al, Noah, Rose of Sharon, her husband Connie Rivers, and the kids Winfield & Ruth.

While most of the family is fleshed out in the book, most of the focus is given to Tom and Ma. Jane Darwell won Best Actress for her portrayal of the strong-willed matriarch. Henry Fonda was only nominated, but he has the best arc as Tom Joad. Although Tom was just released from prison, he continues to struggle with grapes of wrath. Former preacher Jim Casey played by John Carradine also joins the Joads and Tom ends up learning a lot from him as the family gets smaller. His final promise of “I’ll be there” is an inspirational quote that emphasises the hopeful theme. The Grapes of Wrath speaks to the American dream.

The Grapes of Wrath

Tom Joad (left) and his family