Monday, April 10, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1941

The Contenders:

Orson Welles: Citizen Kane
Walter Huston: The Devil and Daniel Webster
Robert Montgomery: Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Cary Grant: Penny Serenade
Gary Cooper: Sergeant York (winner)

What’s Missing

So let’s start with the fact that the only acting nomination for The Maltese Falcon was for a deserving Sidney Greenstreet in a supporting role. The miss on Bogart is tragic, though and almost unbelievable, especially in a year where he also did High Sierra. I’m a little surprised that Henry Fonda was missed for The Lady Eve even if I wouldn’t put him in the running. The same is true of Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels. It’s worth noting that Cary Grant was probably nominated for the wrong film, too; Suspicion isn’t a great film or a perfect role for him, but it’s an improvement over what he was nominated for. I’m mildly tempted to say the same thing about Gary Cooper and Ball of Fire. Spencer Tracy gives an interesting performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and of course Lon Chaney Jr. will live forever in The Wolf Man. Finally, if I don’t mention Victor Mature in I Wake Up Screaming, someone else will.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Let me say right now how painful it is to me personally to put Cary Grant in last place in anything, but he doesn’t belong here for Penny Serenade. It’s one of the curses of his career that he was nominated for roles that didn’t deserve it and ignored for roles that did. Penny Serenade is a movie I never plan on watching again for some egregious plot issues, but in terms of Oscar, Grant’s performance is nothing more than serviceable, and not even in his top 10 career-wise. This doesn’t belong here.

4. I could say much the same thing about Robert Montgomery in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Montgomery is fine in the role and it’s a good role, but he’s not close to the best thing in the movie. This one is so much more interesting when Claude Rains is on the screen and it suffers when he disappears. When you can’t hold scenes against a fellow actor, you don’t have a good chance at a nomination in my book, let alone a win. Truthfully, I almost put Montgomery in last place, but Grant’s nomination actually makes me angry based on the rest of his career.

3. Gary Cooper is arguably very good in Sergeant York, and the film is a good one, if a bit on the preachy side. I think I could argue that Cooper deserved the nomination equally for Ball of Fire (as mentioned above), and based on his whole year, I can kind of see why he ended up winning. Sergeant York is very much a propaganda film in a year when the country had just entered a war, which gave Cooper a lock. With the wisdom of hindsight and more than seven decades, I’m satisfied with his nomination, but I don’t give him the statue.

2. In a different year, I would give this Oscar to Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster. This is one of the great performances of Huston’s career, one in which he took obvious and clear delight. The movie itself is a bit stodgy and thick, but when Huston is on the screen, it absolutely sings, and does so specifically because of his diabolical and diabolically fun take on Old Scratch himself. I love that he was nominated, and I’d love to give him the statue simply for how much fun he is to watch. But I can’t.

My Choice

1. In my opinion, the two best male performances of 1941 in leading roles were Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Truthfully, I enjoy The Maltese Falcon more as a movie, but Charles Foster Kane is a towering character and he’s entirely the creation of Welles. This is an award I would give to either of these two men for these two roles, but on this blog, the tie always goes to the Academy, so at least they nominated someone who should have won.

Final Analysis


  1. Five terrific actors but I wouldn't include any of them in my lineup except Welles for Citizen Kane. I might flip flop Montgomery and Cooper just because I enjoy Bob's jaunty performance but of these five the prize would have to go to Orson.

    Bogart is covered for Maltese Falcon but he’s wonderful in High Sierra. I like the suggestion of Mature in I Wake Up Screaming though Laird Cregar is the standout performance there. I didn’t think much of Tracy in Dr. Jekyll but both Fonda and Cooper in their comedies are super. To who else is missing and should be here aside from the fact that no one belongs in the winner's circle but Bogart there are a few other worthies.

    James Cagney is deceptively great in The Strawberry Blonde where he and Olivia de Havilland perform an enchanting dance of attraction and affection. Albert Dekker’s double performance screen bow as upstanding and insane twins in the fascinatingly creepy Among the Living would be a better inclusion than most that are there. But the person who would be my runner up to Bogart is Edward G. Robinson as the mad captain of The Ghost in The Sea Wolf. He’s hypnotic in his lunacy.

    Also though I wouldn’t nominated him Lloyd Nolan is a delight in the low budget Dressed to Kill. Speaking of delights, though he’d be supporting, Charles Laughton gave one of his absolutely best comic performances this year in It Started with Eve.

    1. I'll disagree with you on Huston, although he might almost be a supporting actor in that role. He's so gleefully and entertainingly wicked that just the thought of him in the role makes me smile.

      I rather enjoy Tracy's version of Dr. Jekyll, but it's not as good as Fredric March's. Still, it's an entertaining one.

      The others you mention, as is often the case, are ones I don't know.

    2. I loved Huston, he'd probably be my number six, I just liked the other work a bit more.

      Dressed to Kill is the first of a series of B mystery detective films where Nolan breezily played Michael Shayne and contains what might be my favorite movie line-"The stork that brought you should have been arrested for dope peddling!"

      You must track down The Sea Wolf! Not only does it have a dastardly EGR in a contest of wills with Alexander Knox but it also has John Garfield AND Ida Lupino in support!!

    3. Okay, you sold The Sea Wolf to me. I'll add it to the list.

  2. Yup, this should have gone to Welles. I will admit to not thinking Bogart was all that great in The Maltese Falcon. Then again, I generally think he's overrated, aside from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. That said, I still need to see High Sierra and a number of his other movies. Finally, I'd be all about a nomination for Lon Chaney.

    1. We'll disagree on Bogart. I do think that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is his best work, but The Maltese Falcon isn't far behind. It's a tough, muscular depiction of Sam Spade, the sort of performance that not only defined Bogart, but in many ways defined screen detectives.

      I think Chaney's performance in The Wolf Man is fantastic. He's tragic and sympathetic and it could have been ridiculous. I wouldn't object to his nomination, but I really think he should have been nominated at least in a supporting role in 1939 for Of Mice and Men.

  3. As much as I love (and prefer) The Maltese Falcon as a movie I would give the award to Orson Welles. His Kane character is magnificent, also in hindsight.
    I did not like Gary Cooper much in Sergeant York, he seemed very wooden here and placing this high would make your 4 and 5 truly awful.

    1. And that's really the thing. I watch The Maltese Falcon about once a year, sometimes more. I don't watch Citizen Kane nearly that often, but Welles and Joseph Cotten are magnetic in it.

  4. There was one clear winner for 1940 and we agree completely on who it was. I love Bogart in Maltese Falcon but the character simply does not have the range that Welles had to pull off in Kane.

    1. I think it really does come down to that. Kane changes dramatically. There's a change in Sam Spade, too, but it's a change for the audience, not in the character, at least not really.