In the modern era of CGI-to-reduce-cost-and-expand-purview a reader can appreciate the concept and withdraw from the premise itself; some filmmakers have become so adept at this new-ish style of blockbusting that the best way to create some kind of predictive modeling for success is to examine the allotments of a film’s budget by bucket – acting, tech, staffing, other, etc. – and plot perhaps comparable returns by genre. In this data-heavy approach many a fortune has been and will continue to be made by those who understand the underlying assumptions behind this premise. Before computer scientists called Odysseus to determine the fate of the Known Universe, a certain ebb and flow concerning how an audience viewed a film pre-digital is that the content sold the premise, and the acting usually sold the concept. There were no data to be dug.
And thus the appeal to 1944’s Best Picture winner, Going My Way.
In the decades during which Bing Crosby dominated the baritone vocal range, both on- and off-screen, the sure-thing of a box office return led the burgeoning statistics masters to continue to make films starring Bing. During our last legitimate conflict, Bing (and his voice) provided a warm comfort to servicemen and women both home and abroad. His co-option of wholesomeness provided a welcome distraction from the horror of war and the uncertainty of the individual. The data, a general public opinion, tended to comfort, too, Hollywood financiers who, it seemed, collectively doubled- and tripled-down on his ability to carve a small niche from families’ ever-shrinking discretionary funds. Bing’s honesty, in a manner of speaking, helped a rather dishonest group who attempted to craft a story around the sophomoric data. Maybe.
That isn’t to say Going My Way didn’t deserve Best Picture. Bing Crosby and his cast of rag-tag whatchamacallits tell a pleasant story as pleasantly as possible. Major conflict is somewhat interpersonal and the story, somewhat thematically, asks its viewers to identify with Bing and with old Father Fitzgibbon it is a Good tactic that draws from the supposed correlation between scripture and mores. This is also a data-driven technique, though even more rudimentary and fundamental: thousands of years of religious hegemony and a majority of 1940s Americans (and perhaps supporters of the arts) would identify with a Christian value-system and thereby find the message not-so-subtly embedded in the Going My Way’s concept by way of premise. Data didn’t lie in the 1940s and it doesn’t now. Modern movie industry just gotten more cynical, shrewd and scrupulous with its premise of what sells and what doesn’t. This is why we get 9 Avengers films and waves of creative, original and perhaps oddball filmmakers don’t make it past a few sunsets at Sundance.
The Academy decided in 1944 to limit the number of nominated films from theoretically unlimited to just five, a practice that held for 64 years until 2008, when the Academy opened the nomination floor for Best Picture back up to eight-to-ten. We theorize the reasons for this change and compare them to written and oral accounts of why but it seems fairly obvious: the data said so. By imposing an artificial limit, the concept-premise model would force filmmakers to choose more carefully where to spend precious capital. Somewhere, in some room, someone figured this out and perhaps strengthened the film industry for decades, potentially thwarting the market from sequels (note: next week’s review will address this shot-in-the-foot irony), whose ubiquity has created an oversaturated and under-creative market for what some moviegoers see as a substitute for a sporting event or a night out, rather than a complement to a boring Sunday afternoon. Stars like Bing Crosby of course do exist, but, as I’m sure data would show, there exists no market for a wholesome film, even now in the Time of Cholera.
The year saw some of the tailing-off of some off the magic of the late 30s/early 40s, perhaps for the very reason that it wasn’t a shoe-in for a somewhat credible film to pick up nominations: Gaslight, Since You Went Away, and Wilson. Let it also be known the my personal favorite film, of the hundreds I’ve seen, Double Indemnity, lost this year to Going My Way, which, to this reviewer, is a travesty in its own right and proves, at least to me, that sometimes data do lie.