[1945] The Bells of St. Mary’s

In a previous post, I mentioned that, in the mid-1940s, the sequel was not the default for film production as it is today, both as a conscious method of storytelling and because the limited data did not support it. This ethos did not extend to the concept of character clearly, as The Bells of St. Mary’s resurrects Father Chuck O’Malley from his award-winning role in Going My Way. The concept is not problematic; the Father is a warm-hearted, level-headed, American folk hero whose predilections for conversation and reason helped to permeate the average American experience. This is one thing about which the studio can be and was sure.

Yet in Oscar hopscotch, thematic shifts have required course correction. In 1945, unlike in 1944, The Bells of St. Mary’s did not win Best Picture or Best Actor. Instead, those awards scuttled over to The Lost Weekend, a noir classic, often evoking superlatives as Billy Wilder’s best work or Ray Milland’s most striking performance, perhaps. The meta-drama within the sequence from 1944 to 1945 supports this blog’s theory that the award for Best Picture (and in some spirit other Academy Awards) is awarded based on mood, politics and especially an effort to document gestalt for the year in question. That a wholesome, Christian film won in 1944 over another noir film, and the roles reversed just a year later provides clear evidence in support of the theory. 

The ‘course correction’ embedded in Academy mythos plays out more in the Actor/Actress realm because the audience (both internal and external) can point to a specific person immortalizing a certain role. Certainly, a director and coaches will help cauterize an actor’s performance as no man exists on an island, it is said, Even with copious aid, the actor’s performance is still his or her own, with the person ultimately responsible for words and action. With a film a compli, it is telling that the producer receives the initial award for Best Picture, as he or she is responsible for the surface craft of the film: moving the pieces around and yelling “Go!” For all intents and purposes the process should be nigh identical from one film to the next, but we know it is not, and therein lies value in deft production. It can save costs, thereby boosting profits, and catapult the studio, director, actor, cinematographer, into vaulted clouds. It is also telling that even with adept maneuvering, the consumer dollar still dictates in what way a course will correct. Between 1944 and 1945, as world events played out publicly, the world had turned a darker shade of pale in just one year.

The jump from literal black and white to figurative probably echoed the war fatigue Americans felt at the time, as noir film operates best as a mood manifest on-screen. Distaste and damning, constricting characterization often ooze, not so subtly, from a noir screen, much more full force than wholesome, no-frills filmmaking, like The Bells of St. Mary’s or Going My Way or The Magnificent Ambersons, which left no impression on this author whatsoever. Inherent in the ‘probably’ causative statement is the feedback loop that – probably – strengthened the move from profit-centric distraction to grit and grim realism. As it was about time to leave international conflict in the annals of history, so was it time to internalize the mood into The Lost Weekend. 

As it were, Best Picture winner, The Lost Weekend, rose to the top of the pile among a field of heavy hitters, including The Bells of St. Mary’s, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Frank Sinatra’s Anchors Aweigh and the timeless Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford. The year brought with it an amalgam of deserving winners from different walks of life. The year had an 80% chance to correct the national mood and did so, just not in the direction perhaps expected.

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