1940: Rebecca [Good]
This was my maternal great-aunt’s favorite movie, one she watched repeatedly, and if I didn’t at least place it in the “Good” tier, I suspect her ghost would return to torment me until I developed better taste in movies. Fortunately, I can say with perfect candor that it is, indeed, good, with strong performances by Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and especially Judith Anderson, whose diabolical character will give the viewer chills. This was legendary suspense-film director Alfred Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, and while it’s neither his best film nor my favorite of his films, it does bear his stamp, with plenty of flashes of the style that made him an icon.
1941: How Green Was My Valley [Personal Favorite]
Okay, I get it. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is a masterpiece. Yes, it should have been nominated; yes, it should have won. It’s a thought-provoking and pictorially mesmerizing classic, unique among films of its time, innovative in its documentary-style narrative and detached, objective tone, and burying the movie to ensure it wouldn’t receive the honors it deserved counts among the worst things the offended publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst ever did. But the film that actually won Best Picture that year should not be held accountable for the wrongs done to Kane. It deserves to be judged on its own merits, and while I can understand why some might still dislike it on those grounds — I will admit that it’s a bit thin on plot, being more a series of incidents in the life of a Welsh coal-mining family than a narrative with rising action that builds to a climax — the movie has been a favorite of mine for years. The paterfamilias played expertly by character actor Donald Crisp is, along with Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite Movie Dad, a wise, warm-hearted man, sometimes stern, occasionally flawed and stubborn but ultimately loving, and his relationship with his young son Roddy MacDowall is beautifully poignant. Walter Pidgeon (as the local minister, a friend and mentor to young MacDowall), Maureen O’Hara (as MacDowall’s older sister, who loves Pidgeon in vain), Sara Allgood (as Crisp’s wife and MacDowall’s mother, tough but flawed), and Rhys Williams and Barry Fitzgerald (as a pair of prizefighters who give MacDowall boxing lessons when he’s being bullied at school, and then later, in my favorite scene, give a “boxing lesson” to the biggest bully of all, MacDowall’s teacher) also turn in brilliant, touching performances. Alfred Newman’s superb score is the cherry on top. Call it boring if you must, but I stand strong in my affection for it.
1942: Mrs. Miniver [Okay-to-Good]
A beautiful woman with class to burn, Greer Garson was the Emma Thompson of her day, and the choice of her to portray a typical middle-class British housewife driven to heroic extremes by the advent of World War II cannot be faulted. The movie also boasts a roster of superb British character actors such as Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Henry Travers, Henry Wilcoxon, and Rhys Williams (again), plus the stalwart Walter Pidgeon (again) as Garson’s husband. Nonetheless, I can’t place this movie securely in my “Good” tier because with the exception of a few scenes — among them Garson’s confronting downed German pilot Helmut Dantine and the climactic tragic air raid — the movie has somehow failed to take firm hold in my memory, even though I’ve seen it twice (and for movies in my Good tier, twice is all it takes). Those parts are more interesting than the whole. It doesn’t help that the same year boasted three other movies that have made the room for themselves in my heart and mind that this film failed to make: Pride of the Yankees (starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig), Yankee Doodle Dandy (starring James Cagney as George M. Cohan), and Random Harvest (starring Ronald Colman along with, of all people, Greer Garson, whose performance her is better, IMO, than her turn in Mrs. Miniver, even though the latter won her a Best Actress Oscar).
1943: Casablanca [God-Tier]
I’ll get the negativity out of the way first: it may be heresy to say so, but I find the love story the least interesting part of this iconic movie. Ingrid Bergman is luminous, and the camera loves her as much as Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine loves her character, but Ilsa Lund is underwritten. Though I’m pretty good at accepting each movie as a product of its time, her telling Rick, “You have to do the thinking for both of us,” does make me grind my teeth a little. (If you want to see Bergman as a heroine with some substance and complexity to her, check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious.) Yet this quibble doesn’t suffice to keep this film out of God-Tier. It’s a masterpiece, one I could watch again and again at the proverbial drop of a hat. (In one of my highlights of 2022, my husband and I saw this film on the big screen at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, along with a sizable audience of fellow classic movie nerds.) Aside from Bergman’s underwritten role, which she still manages to invest with a dash of charisma, everything about this movie works. The refugees from the Nazis, stuck in Casablanca waiting for the exit visas that will enable them to emigrate to the US, are played by actual refugees from the Nazis, giving the film an authenticity no remake could hope to duplicate. Every bit of casting is spot on, from Madeleine Lebeau as a desperate good-time girl in love with Rick, to Leonid Kinskey as the funny and slightly naughty bartender, to Curt Bois as the pickpocket taking every opportunity to fleece the wealthier refugees (“Vultures! Vultures everywhere!”), to S.K. Sakall as the chef at Rick’s Cafe Americain, to Dooley Wilson as jazz pianist Sam, who can stop the Cafe’s floor show by leading a rollicking singalong of “Knock on Wood” but can’t quite remember “As Time Goes By.” Paul Henried and Conrad Veidt make strong impressions as the movie’s Pure Hero and Pure Villain, as Henried leads the Cafe’s patrons in a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise” that drowns out Veidt and his men’s comparatively feeble chorus of “Watch on the Rhine.” Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet make the most of their little screen time. And of course there’s Bogie himself, rarely seen as a romantic lead before this film and proving himself a natural in such roles. (His scruffy cynicism as a mask for a heroic nature would again serve him well in 1951’s The African Queen.) I’ve saved my favorite part for last: Claude Rains, as the Prefect of Police in Casablanca, an agent of the Nazi-tainted French Vichy government. As Rick’s frenemy, he has as much chemistry with Bogart, albeit of a different kind, as Bergman does, and over half the film’s best lines come from their exchanges, while most of the other half belong to Rains himself. Somehow he missed netting a Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, but his turn as Louis Renault has lingered in our cultural memory long after Charles Coburn’s Oscar-winning performance in The More the Merrier has faded. Without Rains, Casablanca might still have been a pretty decent movie; with him, it’s God-Tier.
1944: Going My Way [Okay]
Most Best Picture winners from this era distinguish themselves by gravitas, wit, or some combination thereof; this movie doesn’t have much of either. I can’t think of anything objectionable about it, but that’s largely because I can’t think of much of anything about it at all, except the song “Swinging on a Star.” It failed to inspire any strong feeling in me one way or the other, which is, after all, the very definition of “okay.”