In 1943, there were 10 best picture nominees. In 1944, there were five. And five has been the magic number until this year, when the race was increased back to 10. But what about 1944? If 10 movies were still to be considered, did five additional worthy contenders exist?
In short: Absolutely, without question. Below I select five films overlooked by the Academy in 1944 but deserving of best picture nominations. In fact, if these were the five nominees, it would have been a strong year.
Hail the Conquering Hero: Of all the World War II movies out this year, I would go with this Preston Sturges comedy about a man whose chronic hayfever earns him a rejection from enlisted duty. Since his father was a decorated war hero, he feels like a failure. When he tells his story to a group of enlisted men, they decided to escort him home as a hero — and proceedings begin to get out of hand.
Some may prefer Sturges’ other 1944 release, the wild The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. But I’ll take “Hero” because of its big heart. It’s about what it takes to be a hero and whether you need to be wearing a uniform to be one. Eddie Bracken beautifully plays the title role, and this small town with Preston’s usual array of quirky characters are endlessly endearing. It’s Sturges most poignant film.
Laura: Director Otto Preminger’s exquisite mystery has everything going for it: a nifty story told in flashback, memorable characters, great acting, atmosphere to spare and one of the era’s most recognizable music scores. Gene Tierney gives a breakout performance as the title character, whose murder is being investigated by Dana Andrews. Her friends, including Vincent Price remember Laura in flashback as Andrews reconstructs the time leading to her death. Clifton Webb’s sterling performance as a cynical columnist earned him a well-deserved Oscar nod as best supporting actor. Preminger himself received a nomination for best director, but this enduring film somehow was left off the short list.
Lifeboat: Like Preminger, director Alfred Hitchcock was nominated for best director for this story of shipwreck survivors adrift on a lifeboat during WWII. The cast of characters includes a journalist and a Nazi, and how Hitchcock manages to keep this drama moving on this one tiny set is a feat in itself. But the film is much more than a gimmick.
With a fine cast, headed by Tallulah Bankhead (was she ever better in Hollywood?), John Hodiak, William Bendix, Mary Anderson and Hume Cronyn, the story unfolds with characters revealing more and more about each other. It’s a one-of-a-kind story told by a master.
Meet Me in St. Louis: It’s my favorite musical of the 1940s, a joyous series of episodes about the Smith family in St. Louis and the time leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair. Director Vincente Minnelli brings his eye for detail to every frame of this film, and the magnificent sets and costumes are lushly photographed in color.
But its joys come in the family interactions. Judy Garland, dazzling as ever, and her sisters, including the scene-stealing Margaret O’Brien go through what may seem trite but becomes winning in Minnelli’s hands. Love gained, love lost, holidays celebrated and family spats are all part of this fun. The now-classic musical score includes “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and it all comes together in a film that represents MGM at its best.
To Have and Have Not: On the success of Casablanca the previous year comes Howard Hawks’ take on how to win the war when you don’t want to be involved. Humphrey Bogart is a tough skipper who reluctantly becomes involved with the Resistance. Lauren Bacall, in her film debut, captivates as a perfect love interest for the hard-boiled Bogart.
The film is equally as much fun to watch them together (anyone want to whistle?) as it is to follow the plot. But it all unfolds under Hawks’ dependable skill and the stars’ charisma.
There’s no doubt that these five films would make a terrific best picture lineup. But all were overlooked!
Classicfilmboy is a former movie critic who has been in love with films from an early age. His favorite time period is the studio era, from the days of the silents through the mid-1960s. He also teaches noncredit film classes in the Chicago suburbs. You can visit his website at www.classicfilmboy.com.