Armchair Oscars – 1945

Best Picture

The Lost Weekend (Directed by Billy Wilder)
The Nominees: Anchors Aweigh, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Mildred Pierce, Spellbound

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Directed by Albert Lewin)
My Nominees:
The Bells of St. Mary’s (Leo McCarey), Brief Encounter (David Lean), They Were Expendable (John Ford)


In 1945, alcoholism was a touchy subject for a film, at least in a drama. I guess that is why it surprises no one that when the subject was handled, it came to the screen by a maverick like Billy Wilder. Based on the book by Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend traces the downward alcohol-soaked spiral of a writer named Don Birnam (Ray Milland) whose drinking seems to have become involuntary.

What I admire about The Lost Weekend is that it details the fall of a drunk without giving him a pass.  Perhaps Don Birham’s tired skin once carried a proud and confident man, but it has long passed him by and what remains is a man beyond his own control, a man for whom alcohol fills his horizons.  Don admits that two men exist inside his skin – the writer and the drunk – and that the two fight against one another.  Yet, while I admire The Lost Weekend greatly, it does run a bit long. We get the point, but after a while it seems to hammer the message home and then to belabor it.

My choice is a picture that pulls off the effect of a split personality without chemical dependence. Based on the only published novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey defines Gothic horror more than any movie I can think of by giving us the kind of literary narrative that we find in books but rarely on the screen. The movie isn’t loaded down with cheap shocks, but is evenly paced so that when surprises happen they arise from the story, not audience manipulation. Plus, unlike Don Birnam, we like Dorian Gray – he is a nice guy who succumbs to his evil nature. This is one of the best films ever made about the duality of man.

We meet young Dorian (Hurd Hatfield) in London in 1886 just as his friend Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore) is putting the finishing touches on his portrait. Convinced that the portrait is a time capsule that will forever remain young while his physical body succumbs to the ravages of time, Dorian is manipulated by the cynical Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) that the only true pursuit in life is in the pursuit of retaining one’s youth. So, he makes a wish upon the statue of an Egyptian cat goddess that while he retains his youth, the picture would fall victim to the ravages of age. He takes this new vigor and energy out into the world where, while visiting music hall, he is smitten by a penniless singer Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury) whom he briefly courts, but Lord Henry encourages him to test her integrity by asking her to spend the night. Unable to accept his offer at first, she changes her mind, thinking that he will cast her aside if she refuses.

It is only after this heartless act that Dorian notices the painting. It has changed slightly, and there is a hint of a sneer as the cruelty he has put upon Sibyl has somehow magically manifested upon the painting itself. He vows never to be so careless with another human being and sits down to write a letter asking her forgiveness only to receive the information that Sibyl has taken her own life. After having to hide the changes in the painting from a visiting Basil, Dorian decides to hide the portrait in his old nursery room upstairs amid the symbols of his childhood innocence – a room in which no one has access, not even the servants.

Years go by and Dorian’s face and body never change – he looks just as he did at the age of 22. Rumors and whispers abound about what might be happening to Dorian but most of the gossip centers around his life of debauchery and sin. Meanwhile the picture of Dorian Gray becomes the mirror of those sins – growing ugly, misshapen and deformed.

He remains cruel and indifferent to everyone except Basil’s niece Gladys (Donna Reed). Dorian has known her since she was a small child and she makes a shocking proposal of marriage right in front of David Stone (Peter Lawford), the man who is courting her, but Dorian politely turns her down. Basil visits Dorian to ask him to come clean and deny the rumors that abound. As a response, he shows Basil the picture and then kills him so that he won’t tell Gladys. A curious thing happens, when he stabs Basil, the blood appears on the hands in the painting. He calls an old acquaintance Allen Campbell (Douglas Walton) to help get rid of the body but apparently he and Allen have a bad history because the man refuses to help him. But Dorian changes his mind by blackmailing him, threatening to tell a secret to Allen’s wife. Shocked, he relents, but soon Allen is dead too, having committed suicide.

Vainly, Dorian rethinks the proposal to Gladys and accepts. Meanwhile, Sibyl’s brother James returns to London, having spent years looking to exact his revenge for the cruelty Dorian caused his sister. Tracking him, he finds him but looking at his unchanged face, he thinks he has found the wrong man, until a barfly informs him of Dorian’s strange story. He goes to Dorian’s estate intending to kill him, hides in the bushes and is killed by a hunter.

Wracked with guilt, Dorian breaks his engagement with Gladys. He returns to the small room believing that he must break the spell but he doesn’t know how. He falsely assumes that by destroying the painting he will lift the curse. He plunges the knife into the heart of the painting but he falls dead on the floor. When Lord Henry and Gladys find him, the painting has returned to the young and handsome Dorian, but the body on the floor now bears the deformities.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is difficult to classify. It is not really a horror film, it isn’t really a mystery, it isn’t really a thriller. It is close to Gothic horror because it is terrifying in concept. The idea of a man selling his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal youth has a Faustian, nerve-wracking context but what is so unsettling about the story is that Dorian begins a such a nice man. He is goaded into his pact and, until the end, doesn’t attempt to break it.

The movie resembles Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which was written around the same time) in the story of the duality of a man’s soul. The two are similar in that both Dorian and Jekyll willingly embrace their dark side. They become addicted to their predatory, animalistic nature and the means by which they can get away with it. I think Dorian has it a little easier though. While Jekyll’s addiction is a drug, Dorian could easily give up his life of debauchery. His addiction is based on arrogance and vanity.

The key to the film’s success is in the casting. Actor Hurd Hatfield in the title role is a brilliant choice. He has a face that is so smooth, so unremarkable, so colorless that it works to portray that his face expresses nothing, leaving the painting to do it for him. This was mostly the credit of director Albert Lewin, who required Hatfield to hold his face as expressionless as possible (a requirement that Hatfield hated). I think it works because his face is so unremarkable that it makes it a blank slate, and we can mentally project anything we want upon it. Hatfield has been accused of playing the role too bland, but I think it plays to the material and his non-expression gives us more of a jolt when we see what is being projected onto the picture.

This is a movie in which much of the action takes place in our minds. The movie is evenly paced so that we have time to register much of what Dorian does off-screen. Except for the murder of Basil we never see any of Dorian’s crimes, they are spoken about and hinted at but they are never displayed. What he does to Sibyl that night takes place between a shot of her downcast eyes after she returns to him and wordlessly agrees to sleep with him and the moment when Lord Henry informs Dorian of her suicide. Did he sleep with her? We don’t really know. The same goes for Allen Campbell who detests Dorian for an unnamed reason. What exactly Dorian blackmails him with remains a mystery and we can assume that he and Allen have a homosexual past (the story has often been cited as a mirror of Oscar Wilde’s secret life as a bisexual).

The film’s art direction is just as important to the film’s success as anything else. In particular is the look of Dorian’s house. His sitting room is overstuffed with furniture, and always in the center of every shot is that ever-present statue, the root of all of Dorian’s mischief. You can read it any way you want but the decor reminded me, in a way, of a funeral parlor with its overcrowding of couches and chairs and marble-tiled floor, and there seems to be no life in Dorian’s home. And upstairs, rarely out of frame, is that room where the picture of Dorian Gray resides. It is the burial vault hidden away from the curious that contains the rotting corpse of Dorian’s soul.

Best Actor

Ray Milland (
The Lost Weekend)
The Nominees: Bing Crosby (The Bells of St. Mary’s), Gene Kelly (Anchors Aweigh), Gregory Peck (Keys to the Kingdom), Cornell Wilde (A Song to Remember)

Edward G. Robinson (Scarlet Street)
My Nominees:
Hurd Hatfield (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Gregory Peck (Spellbound)


Ray Milland’s screen presence always seemed tinged with an heir of coarseness.  I was never comfortable with him as a nice guy or a leading man.  He seemed at his best when playing men who were suffering or just plain mean-spirited.  Both of those qualities got him an Oscar in 1946 for his performance as Don Birham, a 33 year-old writer whose addiction to alcohol had pushed all other trajectories of normal life right out the front door.

The reason that Milland’s performance is so effective is that he doesn’t ask for our sympathy.  This is no tragic hero.  He isn’t afraid to look like a jerk.  We meet him in the middle of his addiction so we sense that whatever positive qualities maintained his personality have been washed away. Don knows he has a problem; he sees the destruction and waste that it is doing to his life but he presses on heedlessly and gives in to the darker sides of his own duality in pursuit of another drink.

It is not a shock that Milland could play this character, it seems to come from his inner being, not from some actorly form. What is a shock can be found in my selection for Best Actor, Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang’s film noir classic Scarlet Street in which he turns around his usual persona to play a man who wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol . . . well, maybe one with the boys at the office.  He is the kind of man from which all great film noir is hatched: The good-hearted dope.

For those who only know Robinson for his dynamic performance in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar or as Barton Keyes, the fast-talking insurance claims manager in Double Indemnity, or even as a caricature in the Bugs Bunny short Racketeer Rabbit, then Scarlet Street is kind of a jolt. Here Robinson drops his tough guy persona and presents a character outside of his familiar repertoire.

Chris is a mouse, a milquetoast, a good guy, yet he is a man of no importance.  At work he is one of the boys – he’s been doing his job for 25 years without a fuss, and as the movie opens, he is attending a formal party to celebrate his quarter century as a banker.  His meekness has probably cost him a great deal of opportunity both in his professional and personal life.  Standing on the sidewalk looking at the boss’ new girlfriend, he wonders what it would be like to be in love with a beautiful girl. We understand his lament especially when he goes home to his wife Adelle, a shrewish nag who jabs and gripes at him. While she complains, an emasculated Chris does the housework in a large ruffled apron.  He is so henpecked that he is forced to work on his paintings in the bathroom.

We don’t sense a defense within him, especially as he walks home and spots a woman being slapped around. He weakly knocks the guy cold but then runs away in search of a police officer.  That’s where he meets Kitty (played by gorgeous Joan Bennett), a beautiful woman, the kind that he had been curious about.  He asks her out for coffee and as they sit, he slowly falls in love with her.  His lack of defense gets in front of his common sense because we spot right away that she is no good. She can see that he’s a dope and only becomes enamored of him when he mentions that he paints (she assumes it has made him rich).

Kitty hatches a plan with her boyfriend to dupe Chris out of his money, but neither Kitty nor her boyfriend (the film just barely hints that he is her pimp) is smart enough to see that he isn’t a great painter.  What follows is the formula for great film noir as Chris finds himself drawn to do things he wouldn’t do otherwise.  The movie never takes the turn that we’re expecting (especially after we’ve met his wife) but being familiar with the genre and seeing the flaws in Chris’ character, it’s not hard to figure out that he will ultimately lose everything.

Robinson never received a single Oscar nomination.  It was only in 1973, just two months after his death, that the academy saw fit to honor him with a lifetime achievement award (he received the news that he would be honored just a week before his death).  He was called a Renaissance man and I think that is accurate because for his entire career, Robinson’s image was pigeonholed into the role of a filthy gangster.  Little Caesar gave us the fleshy face, narrow gaze, frog-like mouth, short stature and violent manner that made him a standard from impressionists.  But, while it didn’t limit the parts he would play, it made him somewhat underappreciated. I think that unique kisser of his gives Chris a great deal of sadness – the thought that he understands that life has passed him by and that he’s not strong enough in his personality to go after what he wants or to defend himself against those who mean him harm.

Best Actress

Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce)
The Nominees: Ingrid Bergman (The Bells of St. Mary’s), Greer Garson (The Valley of Decision), Jennifer Jones (Love Letters), Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven)

Joan Bennett (Scarlet Street)
The Nominees: Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not), Ingrid Bergman (The Bells of St. Mary’s), Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound), Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven)


As director Michael Curtiz was preparing his film adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce, a melodrama about a working-class mother who makes sacrifices for her ungrateful daughter, he wanted the title role to be occupied by someone with box office potential.  He offered the role to Betty Davis and then Rosalind Russell but both declined. Joan Crawford’s name kept coming up but he resisted because she had a reputation for fighting with her directors.  She needed the role because, by 1945, her career had hit the skids following a series of box office flops. MGM had dropped her two years earlier and she didn’t do much better over at Warner Brothers. After much adulation, Curtiz was urged to give the star a chance, but he demanded that she do a screen test.

A good screen test didn’t mean that she was any easier to work with.  The two quarreled all through the making of the film, mostly over the fact that Crawford kept glamorizing her make-up while Curtiz needed her to dull down her looks in order to be convincing as a middle class waitress.  I think Curtiz was right – Crawford finds the right notes to play the role but in every scene she always looks like a movie star. I realize that it would have been considered a sacrilege to tone down Joan Crawford’s famously photogenic face (she fought it), but I think it kills the film’s realism.

Mildred Pierce was a big success, winning Crawford her only Oscar and reviving her flat-lining career.  Yet, I think her best work is to be found elsewhere, in Grand Hotel, The Women, The Gorgeous Hussy, Possessed and Sudden Fear.  Crawford does a descent job playing a woman of strength and nobility but, to be honest, it was more fun watching her play a bitch.  That was the key to my favorite actress of the year, another Joan – Joan Bennett – who gave a brilliant performance as the hard-hearted Kitty March in Fritz Lang’s great noir thriller Scarlet Street.

For me, Bennett is the very picture of the femme fatale, a manipulative cold-hearted hussy who knows how to bilk men out of their money with just the right smile.  Her target in Scarlet Street is Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a pathetic schlub whom she mistakes for a rich man based on his clothes and the fact that he works in a bank.  In actuality, he’s just a mid-level cashier with low self-esteem who lives in a tiny tenement with an insufferable wife.

Kitty snares Chris by pulling a con.  One night, as he is leaving an office party, he spots her across the street being slapped around by her boyfriend, Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea).  Chris comes to her rescue, knocking Johnny out cold.  Kitty pretends to be touched by his chivalry and later meets him for lunch where he admits that he paints.  She assumes that he is a great artist and therefore rich. So, she works out a deal with Johnny (the fight was a set-up) to bilk Chris out of his paintings so they can sell them behind his back.

Yet, Chris can’t see that he is being conned.  He dreams of having a good life with a beautiful woman and with Kitty (who is gorgeous), his heart is so filled with love for her that it blinds him to the obvious fact that she is scamming him.  He offers to put Kitty in an apartment if he can use her place as a studio for his work. The problem is that he has to steal some money from the bank to put her in that apartment.  Meanwhile, Kitty and Johnny sell Chris’ paintings to an influential art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) who acclaims the work, thinking that Kitty is the artist.

Later, when Chris finds out what she has done, she breaks down in tears, telling him that she needed the money. Chris, ever the softy, takes her at her word. Kitty has told Chris that she would happily marry him if he wasn’t already married, so he worms his way out of his marriage only to find that she is in love with Johnny and, in a rage, kills Kitty with an icepick.  The police think Johnny committed the murder and he is executed.  Chris loses his job because he stole money and is now homeless, desitute and deranged.

What is amazing about Kitty is that while she is crafty, she’s not very smart.  Her scheme is based on misguided assumptions about Chris’ social and financial status.  She gets involved with a two-bit hood like Johnny who is her partner in crime and, we sense, probably her pimp (he calls her “Lazy Legs”). She is gorgeous, but she is anything but a lady, laying back on Johnny’s couch chewing gum like cud and spitting out grape seeds. The apartment she calls home is squalid, piled with dishes and garbage. She has the looks to snooker more high-class men, but she chooses an easy target in Chris, who never wonders why she stays with a boyfriend who would slap her around in public or why she would sell the paintings behind his back when he has already stolen money from his wife and his bank in order to put her up in an apartment.

Scarlet Street is all based on assumptions. Kitty assumes that Chris is wealthy and successful. He assumes that she likes him for him and not his money. After he accepts her excuse for selling his paintings behind his back, she assumes that he will take anything she throws at him. In the end, she has a moment when she lets loose on him. “How can a man be so dumb … I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you,” she screams “You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you! sick, sick, sick!”  She makes a lot of assumptions about Chris, unfortunately this one proves to be fatal.

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