Armchair Oscars – 1947

Best Picture

Gentleman’s Agreement (Directed by Elia Kazan)
The Nominees: The Bishop’s Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations, Miracle on 34th Street

Monsieur Verdoux: A Comedy of Murders (Directed by Charles Chaplin)
My Nominees:
Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk), Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway), Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton)


At the same moment that Europe’s liberated Jews were struggling to make their home in Palestine and establish the state of Israel, the academy was recognizing a film for taking a stand against anti-Semitism. Gentleman’s Agreement from Elia Kazan addressed the issue through the scope of a journalist (Gregory Peck) who goes undercover as a Jew in order to learn about hate crimes first hand. I am always proud of the academy for rewarding films about important social issues and at the time, this film may have seemed to be as hard as they come but today the film’s impact has weakened and the approach to the subject seems a little tepid.

To be honest, I prefer the year’s other expose on anti-Semitism, Crossfire from Edward Dmytryk, based on a novel by Richard Brooks which had been about homophobia and gay bashing. Both films were part of an odd time in Hollywood, the six years between the war and the blacklist when filmmakers were experimenting with darker, more cynical subject matter.

One of the best is also one of Chaplin’s favorites among his own work. Monsieur Verdoux: A Comedy of Murders, which was based upon the real-life case of Henri Désiré Landru, a French bluebeard who between 1914 and 1918 seduced and murdered 11 women in order to gain their money. He went to the guillotine in 1922, after being convicted on all 11 counts.

The story was suggested to Chaplin by Orson Welles who offered to direct him in the project but Chaplin wouldn’t hear of it. He had never appeared in a film he had not directed by himself and he did not intend to start here. So Chaplin put the project together himself as director, producer, screenwriter and he even wrote the score. It remains forever unknown what Welles would have done with the story but Chaplin’s version works beautifully as a masterpiece of pitch black comedy. He plays Henri Verdoux, a charming Frenchman who recalls his story from the grave. He was once a banker but was put out of work by the depression. Now he needs a new method with which to support his loved ones, so he takes extended business trips, assumes a new identity, charms, seduces, marries and murders wealthy but unwise women for their money. It is nothing personal, just business. Thus far, he has been successful thirteen times until a kink develops in his plan in the form of Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye) a simpleton with little brains but a lot of mouth whom Verdoux finds a little difficult to bump off.

Meanwhile, during a conversation with a colleague, he hits upon a plan for a foolproof poison that will make the cause of death look like a simple case of heart failure. Attempting to try it on a derelict, he picks up a woman off the street and brings her home out of the rain. He feeds her and gives her the tainted wine and before she has a drink, she recounts her hard luck story and he takes away the wine before she can drink it. He gives her money and sends her on her way.

What works so beautifully in Monsieur Verdoux is that Chaplin moves so effortlessly and his plans seem to come off without a hitch. We become so accustomed to his success that when he fails, it comes as a surprise. Verdoux’s failures stir up some of the funniest moments in any Chaplin film. Take for example the moment when he attempts to give Annabelle the poison. Her maid, who is going to bleach her hair, takes the bottle containing the poison while Verdoux takes the bottle containing the peroxide. He puts the peroxide in Annabelle’s wine while the maid puts Verdoux’s poison in her hair. While Verdoux is running through the house thinking he has swallowed his own poison, the maid is upstairs running through the house while her hair is coming out in clumps. It is all staged beautifully, like a bizarre comic ballet.

Another brilliant scene involves Verdoux’s second attempt to bump off Annabelle by taking her on a fishing trip. He intends to strangle her with a rope but she keeps getting distracted and doesn’t even notice when the rope is around her neck. This comedy of errors ends, inevitably, with Verdoux being dropped in the drink.

The other thing that works is Verdoux himself – this is a wonderfully original creation by Chaplin. He doesn’t look or sound like any character that Chaplin ever played and is the first true attempt to rid himself of all traces of The Tramp. Verdoux, with his haughty voice, his pencil-thin moustache and his graceful manner has a way of moving about in an effortless manner. We sense that he can get away with anything and he almost does. He is acold- blooded killer who stuffs the bodies of his victims in an incinerator, but there is a place in his heart for the lesser creatures in God’s creation. He has sympathy for a caterpillar that he nearly steps on, he loves cats, especially strays, and of course has sympathy for the girl. An ironic twist comes in the end when he is caught, he accepts defeat but refuses to be defeated by his predicament. “Wars, conflict – it’s all business,” he says “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!” His face never registers despair even as he is led to his end.

Chaplin took on the project during a rough period in his personal life. He was under the government microscope, accused of being a communist, and at the same time was in the midst of a paternity suit of which he turned out not to be the father. The film was a colossal flop and the censor boards of the United States would not approve the picture for release for another 17 years. Critics ripped the film to shreds and some theaters refused to show it. Chaplin pulled it from release and it wouldn’t be seen in the United States until 1964. It was only with time that this film found an audience, and today it is lauded as one of his very best.

Best Actor

Ronald Colman (
A Double Life)
The Nominees: John Garfield (Body and Soul), Gregory Peck (Gentlemen’s Agreement), William Powell (Life With Father), Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra)

Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past)
My Nominees:
Charles Chaplin (Monsieur Verdoux), Rex Harrison (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), Franco Interlenghi (Scuiscià), Gregory Peck (Gentlemen’s Agreement)


It is hard to dislike Ronald Colman. He was a handsome, dependable actor with a fine voice and a great screen presence. For over thirty years, he was a welcomed presence in the movies and (from what I’ve seen) never turned in a dull performance. But it wasn’t until 1948, at the age of 57 when he received his only Oscar. His fans found it a loving tribute and his role in George Cukor’s A Double Life would be his swan song as a leading man. In the final decade of his life (he died in 1958), he would turn to television and bit parts.

As Anthony John, in A Double Life, he plays an actor who seems to live the genre in which he is currently working. If he plays comedy, he is funny; if he plays drama he is insufferable. The film turns dark however when he gets the role of Othello and strangles a waitress. Colman gives his all but it is very showy and I never felt that we were looking at a character so much as a performer performing. Colman was likeable but, for me, he was a very showy actor.

Like Rock Hudson, he was more movie star than actor and when you go back and look at his work from the 20s through the 50s you find a body of work that wasn’t exactly deep. I have always felt that this Oscar, which ended his screen career, was given for his body of work and not for his achievements in the film. Maybe a career Oscar might have seemed more fitting.

My choice for Best Actor didn’t receive enough credit probably because, unlike Colman, he wasn’t a showy actor at all. Robert Mitchum was laconic, unassuming with a hangdog face and a voice that doesn’t cry out to be heard. His most popular performance was in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter in which he played his most colorful character – that of a preacher who pursues two children for a loot he has stolen – but he was mostly known for roles in which he didn’t fight to get the audiences attention. In a career that lasted fifty years, starting with a Hopalong Cassidy distraction, Hoppy Serves a Writ, and ended with Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man he turned in one great performance after another.

Further along, in 1972 for Friends of Eddie Coyle and in 1975 for Farewell My Lovely (in which he plays Philip Marlowe), I have givin my Armchair Oscar to Mitchum for his work but of the three, my favorite is Jeff Markham in Jacques Tourneur Noir classic Out of the Past. Mitchum played every note that noir was made of. He had a dogged face, a quiet manner, a laconic and sleepy-eyed way about him. We meet Jeff Bailey working at a gas station and spending time by the lake with his girlfriend. But, as with all noir heroes, his past won’t stay behind him. An old associate named Joe Sterling comes calling and urges him to return to the service of his old boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in only his second film). Driving home at night he tells Ann that his name is really Jeff Bailey and that he once worked for Sterling as a detective in New York. Sterling wants him back in order to help him track down a certain Kathie Moffett, who pumped four bullets into him and left with a large amount of cash.

The long flashbacks tell the story of how Jeff met Kathie and how her bullets met Sterling. Jeff followed her to Mexico years ago and fell for her. He lied to Sterling, telling him that she got ahead of him and was headed for San Francisco. In reality, Jeff ran away with her and the money to a cabin the woods. But one of Sterling’s men named Fisher follows them there, where Kathie kills him.

The labyrinthine plot is nearly impossible to completely explain, needless to say that it never grows tired or dull. I always enjoy the way the ploy toys with the characters, twisting them back and forth into a web of luck, lies and murder. It was a relief when I recently saw the film on DVD and in the audio commentary, noir historian James Ursini reveals that even he has trouble following the plot. But plot is never the point of film noir anyway, it’s the substance. The story isn’t linear, it begins in the present, twists back until the past and arrives back at the present often before we have even gotten to the center section of the film (the back story that Jeff tells Ann takes up at least half an hour).

At the center of this crazy plot is always Mitchum, always dreary-eyed and always with a cigarette between his lips. Mitchum was an actor who knew how to internalize. He never reveals everything he is thinking, especially when he suspects that his is playing a game of wits against Sterling. It surprises him, probably not us, that it comes down to treachery by a woman. Woman in noir are more dangerous than knives.

I am surprised to find that Mitchum was only 28 when he made Out of the Past because his face, even then, revealed a kind of tiredness that comes from experience, from a man who has seen too much. Mitchum is an actor who was often so expressionless that you could read a lot on his face. But even with a cold emotionless manner, he always left you feeling that he was thinking.

Best Actress

Loretta Young (The Farmer’s Daughter)
The Nominees: Joan Crawford (Possessed), Susan Hayward (Smash Up – The Story of a Woman), Dorothy McGuire (Gentleman’s Agreement), Rosiland Russell (Mourning Becomes Elektra)

Deborah Kerr (Black Narcissus)
The Nominees: Susan Hayward (Smash Up – A Love Story), Natalie Wood (Miracle on 34th Street)


Loretta Young was never my favorite actor.  Whenever she appeared in a film, she never seemed to be in the material, she always just seemed to be going through the motions.  She was beautiful, she had a great smile, good teeth and obviously employed a good make-up team but as an actor she just never seemed to give a performance that was worth getting excited about.  That’s why I’m perplexed as to why she won an Oscar her performance as Katie Holstrom in

for The Farmer’s Daughter in which she plays a Swedish farm girl who heads off to nursing school, gets bilked out of her money and ends up working maid service for a senator.

The Farmer’s Daughter isn’t a terrible movie but I think that if Young hadn’t won an Oscar, the film would be an obscurity.  I wish the academy would have taken a note from The New York Film Critic’s Circle and at least given a nomination to my choice for Best Actress, Deborah Kerr, for her subtle yet effective performance in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus.

Kerr wasn’t one of my favorite actors either, she had a tendency to mistake a blank stares for inner turmoil and she sometimes delivered her lines with a flat colorless monotone. But for Black Narcissus, less was more. Here she keeps her emotions hidden even while her inhibitions begin to slip. That effect works because as Sister Clodagh, a nun from the country, she is required to keep her passions in check.

Directed by the dynamic team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and shot in gorgeous Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, Black Narcissus pushed the envelope as far as subtle erotic content and the fact that the unbridled passions are swept upon a group of nuns makes it all the more taboo.

As the story opens The Reverend Mother instructs Sister Clodagh to take four of the sisters with her to a mountain palace high in Mopu, Himalaya, to build a convent and girl’s school out of a place that once housed concubines for the General. Nothing seems out of the ordinary despite having to suffer a brutish British Agent named Dean (David Farrar), the arrival of a rather unchaste dancing girl (Jean Simmons), a young General (Sabu) who insists that the nuns teach him his lessons in history, language and physics. The arrival of these somewhat uncouth locals and a strange atmosphere brimming with the palace’s sordid past elicit passions in the sisters that they have long suppressed.

Sister Clodagh seems emotionless at first, taking the Reverend Mother’s assignment without question even though the old mother can sense that her young charge isn’t up to the challenge. There is a look her aged eyes that fear what the powers the palace might have and taking young Sister Clodagh’s devotion to her faith, she sends her anyway.

The place is magical, high in the Himalayas with a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and containing glorious but crumbling architecture, it also contains a reminder of the palace’s origins with the erotic artistry on the walls and an atmosphere dripping with the past. Sister Clodagh is sure she can transform this former house of debauchery into a place of worship, but she isn’t ready for what effects it has on the women in her care. They become ill, they begin losing their sense of responsibility and propriety. Sister Briony, who has been sent to tend the garden to grow food is so enamored of the beauty of the flowers that she plants a flowerbed instead of food. Sister Ruth loses herself in the erotic atmosphere and decides ultimately to give up her faith. Eventually she goes mad.

But before Sister Ruth loses herself, there are hints that the palace is having an effect on Sister Clodagh as her mind wanders during morning prayer to a time before she joined the order and she loved a man. We see her smile for the first time and I suspect that passion would have gotten under her skin were it not for the fall of Sister Ruth.

Late in the film, Sister Clodagh goes to Ruth’s room and finds her in a black dress, announcing that is she not renewing her vows. Clodagh begs her to change her mind but, in an act of defiance, Ruth puts on a shade of red lipstick. Intending to run away with Dean, he spurns her and blames it on Clodah and attempts to kill her by pushing her over a cliff. The result is that Clodagh hangs on by the bell rope while Ruth falls to her death.

What I love about Kerr’s performance is that she takes a minimalist approach. There is no grand moment when she goes over the top with large gestures, she keeps it suppressed and isn’t showy. Even when Dean is rude to her, she is insulted but there is no shouting and when Ruth defies her, there is no grand moment when she goes overboard with emotion. I’ve always criticized Kerr for not giving enough, for keeping it inside and for once she found a movie in which this works to her advantage.

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