Armchair Oscars – 1948

Best Picture

Hamlet (Directed by Laurence Olivier)
The Nominees: Johnny Belinda, The Red Shoes, The Snake Pit, Treasure of the Seirra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Directed by John Huston)
My Nominees:
Fort Apache (John Ford), Red River (Howard Hawks), Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak)


Years ago, when I first became interested in The Academy Awards, I gave myself the task of seeing every film that ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. Through an experience that sometimes dazzling, sometimes agonizing, I eventually succeeded, even though it took ten years. The final holdout on my list was Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, not the greatest adaptation of Shakespeare caught on film, but still relevant and quite compelling.

Olivier made the brilliant choice to direct the film himself, giving his own creative eye to the entire production.  With this film, unlike the stage production, he is able to maneuver what the audience sees and unconsciously responds to.  His camera moves inward to capture the tortured mind of Hamlet as he deals with the machinations that led his conniving uncle to murder his father.  This is a fine production, though if I have one slight complaint it is that the film does sometimes feel a little flat.  We get inside the minds of the characters but we never feel that we in the period.  I liked Olivier’s Hamlet but it isn’t a film that I would choose to spend an evening with.

My choice for 1948 is John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a cautionary tale of the degenerative power of greed. Like most great films about human nature, it tells the story of a journey, but the point isn’t what they find but about the men they become along the way. It tells the story of desperate people finding the pathway to material happiness and the paranoia that leads to distrust. We can say with confidence that most people are decent and honest. We could say that Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) and Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), two down-on-their-luck Americans looking for work and a lucky break down in Mexico, have the potential to be decent men, but after the word ‘gold’ enters their lives, we’re apt to think differently.

“Gold’s a devilish sort of thing,” they are told.  “I’ve seen what gold does to men’s souls.” These words come from Howard (Walter Huston), the knowledgeable old prospector who tries to warn these whipper-snappers of the soul-crushing journey they are about to take. Howard tells of rumors of gold in the mountains of Mexico. They are interested in going in with him due to his experience but they worry that they might have to drag this old timer along. Yet he proves far more adept then they ever thought possible, and he not only works as their guide but becomes their chief source of wisdom and common sense. Early in the trip, Bob and Fred come across a pile of shiny rocks and their eyes dance, but Howard spots it right away as worthless pyrite – “fool’s gold” he calls it. They actually learn from his experience, most importantly the fact that gold is not likely to be found in nuggets but in gold dust.

The moment that real gold comes on the scene, whatever trust existed between Dobbs and Curtin begins to dissolve. Dobbs returns to the tent one night to find that Curtin is gone and becomes paranoid. He goes out to find Curtin and Curtin returns to find Dobbs gone. The men don’t trust one another and decide to divide up their share of the gold each night rather than dividing it up at the end of the trip. On the way back to town, Curtin is followed by a curious man named Cody who only wants to get in on their deal. He is a man with common sense and offers them the options to either kill him or let him in on the deal. They decide to kill him but it is at that moment that they get into a shootout with Mexican bandits led by the despicable Gold Hat (Anfonso Bedoya). Cody is killed, and Curtain feels a measure of responsibility especially after he goes through the man’s wallet and finds a picture of his wife and son.

The characters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre represent varying levels of greed. Howard is a reasonably honest man who looks upon the nervous youngsters with a sort of amusement. He has seen their kind of behavior over and over. His wisdom and restraint are rewarded when saves a small boy from drowning and earns a lifetime of comfort and trust from an Indian tribe, which he considers a retirement. Curtain, meanwhile, represents most of us, apt to be greedy but not likely to fall into the kind of lust and murder that Dobbs falls victim to. He is shot twice by Dobbs but lives and heads off to look up Cody’s widow. He is burdened with having to explain to this woman and child what he has done. Dobbs represents the bottom of the scale, greedy, paranoid, and apt to the basest of human need. He possesses a survival instinct, but he doesn’t have the patience to stop and consider his actions. His lust for the gold ends up costing him everything.

Like all great human dramas about greed, the movie finds itself right back where it began. When the story is over and the gold has been thrown back to the four winds, we sense that nothing has been gained except in the case of Howard, whose ultimate reward is a tidy kind of retirement plan.

Best Actor

Laurence Olivier (
The Nominees: Lew Ayres (Johnny Belinda), Montgomery Clift (The Search), Dan Daily (When My Baby Smiles at Me), Clifton Webb (Sitting Pretty)

Humphrey Bogart (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
My Nominees:
William Holden (Apartment for Peggy), James Stewart (Call Northside 777), John Wayne(Fort Apache), John Wayne (Red River), John Wayne (3 Godfathers)


To date, Laurence Olivier remains the only film director to direct himself to a Best Actor Oscar. I wish I were more impressed by both. I found his direction muddy and stagey and I found his performance stiff. He has particular moments when he sparks some life into the character, such as the famous graveside soliloquy but he’s so dull in the role that it’s hard to care about his plight. I am also particularly put off by the fact that Hamlet, returning from college, is played by a 41 year-old actor. I’m not trying to be cruel to Olivier, I think he was one of the best Shakespearean actors ever to work in film. I think his 1955 film version of Richard III was the best of his career. This version of Hamlet, however, just doesn’t spark, unlike Franco Zefferelli’s realist imagining with Mel Gibson or the full-blooded production by Kenneth Branaugh.

My favorite performance of the year came from my favorite actor of the decade, Humphrey Bogart in the unglamorous role of Fred C. Dobbs in John Huston’s wonderful The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. For the role of a man consumed by greed and led to murder his own best friend for a few pounds of gold, Dobbs could be the poster child for the dangers of avarice run amuck.

We meet Dobbs somewhere in Mexico, working the occasional odd job, but mostly strolling the streets begging wealthy Americans for money.  Crazy from the heat, he loses track of the people he’s been panhandling from and ends up begging the same man three times. He finds some good news, however, when he overhears an old man named Howard (Walter Huston) talking about the possibility of gold buried somewhere in the mountains. He goes in with Howard and Curtin (Tim Holt) to dig for the gold and divide the profits among themselves. The trust deteriorates, however, when the gold becomes a reality. Curtin and Dobbs trust one another less and less, especially as bandits – in particular a nasty little Mexican Bandito named Gold Hat – close in.  Yet, the boys are able to scare them off with gunfire, and most of Gold Hat’s men are killed by the cavalry.

Bogart’s best moment comes after he and Curtin have left Howard with an indian tribe who need the man as a doctor. Dobbs doesn’t trust Curtin and, fearing that he will take off with all the gold himself, shoots Curtin twice and leaves him for dead. In a moment that would have made Olivier proud, Dobbs stumbles around the campsite, wracked by guilt and muttering to himself. Then he tries to sleep by the fire, but he hallucinates that the fire is rising to consume him. His trip ends tragically as he makes it to the border of Durango and is met once again by Gold Hat who kills him with a machte.

What makes Bogart’s performance work is that he sheds his entire ego. He isn’t afraid to look like a jerk. We’re all use to seeing him as the slick hero who knows the score and is one step ahead of the villains, but here he is the hero who becomes the villain. He becomes the symbol of the evil that greed does to men’s soul. Early in the picture, the old prospector warns his young proteges, “I’ve seen what gold does to men’s souls,” and Dobbs seems to personify it.

Best Actress

Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda)
The Nominees: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit), Irene Dunne (I Remember Mama), Barbara Stanwyck (Sorry, Wrong Number)

Moira Shearer (The Red Shoes)
The Nominees: Rita Hayworth (The Lady from Shanghai), Barbara Stanwyck (Sorry, Wrong Number)


It is said that the best way to win an Oscar is to play either the victim or the handicapped. Jane Wyman played it safe . . . she did both. In Jean Negulesco’s adaptation of Elmer Harris’ play Johnny Belinda, she plays Belinda McDonald, a small town deaf-mute who comes under the tutelage of a kindly doctor (Lew Ayers) who teaches her lip reading and sign language. That seems like it would be compelling enough but then she is raped by the town bully and becomes pregnant, has the child and eventually kills the man responsible.

To say that Wyman’s performance is one-note might seem a little unfair, given the nature of her role, yet it is hard to give her credit when the movie is so willing to bash us over the head with episodic melodrama at the expense of credibility. Wyman spends the entire film wearing the same clueless expression even while the screenplay works to push her from pitiful victim to fierce mother bear fighting for the sake of her child, but it is all so contrived and manipulative. I am all for sympathetic characters but, honestly, this is asking too much.

I love strong women in the movies but only when I feel that the character is allowing me to follow their passion without being manipulated. Such is the case with my Best Actress choice for 1948, a rare screen appearance by the ballet legend Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes, as a woman fighting to embrace her art and her passion under the direction of a cruel taskmaster.

Directed by Emeric Pressberger, the film tells two stories, one on the stage based on the Han Christian Anderson fable about a ballerina who acquires a pair of magical dancing slippers, and then a similar parallel story behind the scenes about a woman who cannot give up dancing. This is, of course, the most famous film ever made about ballet, and it is brought to life from the team of Emeric Pressberger and Michael Powell (known as The Archers) whose films were always exquisite Technicolor productions. To see The Red Shoes is to see these two at their best.

In the middle of one of the most glorious looking productions ever put on film is gorgeous, red-headed Moira Shearer. She plays Victoria Page, a socialite with such a talent for ballet that she joins the company of the rigid taskmaster Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). She falls, almost immediately, in love with the company’s new composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring) despite the fact that Boris forbids those under his study from having romantic relationships.  He feels that it steals the performer’s concentration.

Victoria becomes a sensation with her colleagues and the public. Boris promises to make her career under the condition that while she is in his service that he, essentially, owns her. He is a powerful man who has a way of making and breaking careers. “You shall dance,” he promises her “and the world will follow.” He offers her the lead in an adaptation of Han Christian Anderson’s “The Red Shoes,” the story of a girl who comes into the possession of a pair of red ballet slippers that cause her to dance continuously until she dies.

Victoria is caught between her love of dance and her love of Julian and despite Boris’s disapproval; she carries on her relationship with Julian and eventually marries him, leaving the company behind. Boris is deeply hurt but is convinced that she will change her mind. She does, when he offers her a chance to once again perform in “The Red Shoes,” which he has forbidden to be performed in her absence.

What happens in Victoria’s mind and in her heart pulls her in two different directions, torn between her devotion to Boris and her love for Julian, she makes a decision that shocks us, her mind falls between two great loves and she cannot bear to choose. The tragic ending is built, not on contrivance, but on what has happened before. These three characters and their world are so specifically drawn that we understand fully why Vicky loves to dance and her deep love for Julian.  We understand fully what drives her creative impulse and the passions that possess her heart.

Shearer is brilliant in one of the great crossover performances in the history of the screen. She isn’t tied down to a great deal of dialogue, but is a very physical actor, conveying more with her eyes and her body and her face than she does with her voice. She is allowed to dance in this film and dance she does. We understand fully what drives her creative impulse and it is displayed most beautifully in a 20-minute, dreamlike performance of “The Red Shoes” as she dances in and out of sequences that could not possibly exist on a real stage. The dancing is real but the surroundings are not and there are moments that are especially dazzling as when she encounters a newspaper that becomes a dancer, dances with Victoria, then becomes inanimate again. The joy and passion in this sequence give you an appreciation for her art and illustrate what it is that she sees when she is performing.

In the real world, the relationship between Boris and Victoria is established at the beginning. He looks at her with suspicious eyes and asks, “Why do you want to dance?” There is a breath between them and she asks, “Why do you want to live?” He is shocked by her answer and stammers for a response: “Well I don’t know exactly why, but I must.” She smiles, and says, “That’s my answer too”.

From that moment, I think Boris has her number. He understands the kind of full-blooded passion that drives her heart. She will dance and he will command and he won’t lose her to any distractions. He commands his company by reminding them that “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.” The film moves back and forth through the parallel stories of Victoria’s struggle with her own heart and the ballet that is being constructed.

The two performances are at opposite ends from one another. Boris is closed, imperious and cold. Victoria is open, passionate and full of the joy of life. She isn’t allowed a great deal of dramatic scenes, which makes the final confrontation all the more powerful. We see in her face, joyfulness, a lust for life, this porcelain beauty with fiery red hair whose dancing is pure magic.

Despite her brilliant performance, Shearer didn’t think much of filmmaking. She never considered herself an actress, never liked the film industry, stating “If I am dubious about films and film people, the film industry has only itself to blame.” After making The Red Shoes, she went back to her ballet company, only occasionally returning to films. Her performance here would leave an impression behind – a performance that would draw many young girls to want to become a ballerina. I don’t know if she would have given any notice to an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Red Shoes, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t deserve it.

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