Friday, June 23, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Original Screenplay 1942

The Contenders:

One of Our Aircraft is Missing
Road to Morocco
Wake Island
The War against Mrs. Hadley
Woman of the Year (winner)

What’s Missing

This is going to be another one of “those” years. I could make a set of nominees as good or better than the ones we have with a few left over, so I guess that means we all know where this is headed, right? Let’s start with some war films that certainly should/could have been all the rage in 1942. The 49th Parallel is an interesting film, perhaps ignored because it’s essentially “Hooray for Canada!” more than it is anything else. A bigger miss is the odd British film Went the Day Well? about Germans invading a small British town and the locals fighting back; it’s one of the oddest propaganda films I’ve ever seen, but it has some great moments. To Be or Not To Be has some war connections as well, and it’s a very good and funny movie in a time when that was needed. I’m not terribly surprised that Cat People wasn’t on the list, but it’s a fine script. The most surprising misses are (in some order) Holiday Inn, The Pride of the Yankees, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, which really should be here. As a final note, I’d love to mention the brilliant In Which We Serve, but it got its nominations in 1943.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I’m going to drop One of Our Aircraft is Missing straight away because I remembered almost nothing about it beyond the title. I had to read through my entire review of the film to remember that I’d actually seen it. That doesn’t bode well. For what it’s worth, I said that it’s a decent war film but very obviously a propaganda film. The techniques for propaganda films hadn’t really been developed at this point, and One of Our Aircraft is Missing is about as heavy-handed as you’ll find. It’s interesting for what it is (at least I claimed that when I reviewed it), but it clearly has no staying power.

4. The War Against Mrs. Hadley is interesting in ways, but it telegraphs itself so clearly from the beginning that you’ll know the ending within the first 15 minutes of the film. This is, more or less, “A Christmas Carol” with World War II substituting for Christmas and the eponymous Mrs. Hadley standing in for Scrooge. In fact, the only thing that saves this from sitting at the bottom is that it does accurately portray a particular personality type, on that is probably more with us today in our selfie-obsessed culture than it was in 1942.

3. In a lot of ways, Woman of the Year is my least favorite of these five movies because it has some significant issues with its depiction of women in general. Bluntly, the gender politics of this film are really ugly and while slightly (and only slightly) progressive in their own way for the time, they are horribly retrograde today. More, I don’t really like the characters a lot. I get why this won, but I’m still not convinced it’s a movie that I’d even want to see nominated for this award, especially when a lot of my problems come directly from the screenplay itself.

2. Wake Island is clearly a propaganda film much like the first two I’ve mentioned, and as an early propaganda film, it has its problems. It is, however, better in some respects than the previous two films on this list. It’s another film where it is easy to see where things are going. The main problems I have with Wake Island, though, come not from the plot or the characters, but from the technical limitations of the time. With a lack of money to produce good effects and no real stock footage, Zeroes turn into biplanes when they are shot down. It’s an issue, but that’s not the fault of the screenplay.

1. This leaves us with Road to Morocco as the one left on top, and while I do think it’s the most deserving of the five nominated films, it’s a pretty unenthusiastic decision on my part. The good thing here is that it’s really well written. Some of the jokes won’t work for a modern audience, but a lot of the humor still carries through. It’s fluffy, but it’s also likeable and easy to watch, and that is worth something. Having Bing and Bob along for the ride helps, but the film needs to make them guys we want to like, and it does. It won’t win in an open field in my opinion, but I’m fine with the nomination, and from this list, it would be my pick.

My Choice

This is another of those years when I think Oscar could have done a hell of a lot better in putting together a list of nominations that actually deserve to be here. The list above in the first paragraph is filled with them, and I would rank just about any of those movies ahead of all five of the ones we were actually given. The Pride of the Yankees or Yankee Doodle Dandy would most likely be my choices, although Went the Day Well? would be an interesting and worthy dark horse.

Final Analysis


  1. Yeesh! When a Road movie is the best choice you know something has gone awry! I mean they were cute movies but Oscar winning? No way.

    I loved The War Against Mrs. Hadley but that was because it provided showcase roles for a slew of superior character actors/actresses no one more than Fay Bainter and Edward Arnold-giving him a nice change of pace as well. But that had nothing to do with the screenplay which tipped its hand from the get-go.

    Woman of the Year made me see red with its rank inequality that it tried to convince you was progressive and the others were mere rah-rah filmmaking.

    Went the Day Well? is an intriguing suggestion and a memorable film and I'd love to see it in the running but it wouldn't be my choice.

    I'm not a particular fan of Yankee Doodle Dandy aside from its Cagney showcase.

    Pride of the Yankees goes a trifle heavy on the schmaltz at times but the screenplay isn't bad and the story very affecting though without Cooper, Teresa Wright and Walter Brennan I don't know if it would have nearly the kick it does.

    My pick would go to the brilliant To Be or Not To Be, But it suffered from the misfortune of bad timing with its release so closely paralleling the bombing of Pearl Harbor squashing the nation's taste for satire of a very real threat. You would have thought Carole Lombard's death returning from a highly successful war bond rally might have given it a patriotic sheen but if it did it didn't lead to a nomination haul. A pity since it's a great film.

    1. It really is a good film, and I wouldn't be terribly upset if To Be or Not To Be had been nominated and walked off with the statute.

      I agree that both Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Pride of the Yankees are heavy-handed, but that seems to be the style for 1942, and given that, they're better than what we were otherwise given.
      It's not the greatest year for original screenplays, evidently. The nominations just don't hold up at all. When you can legitimately make a completely new set of nominations and not feel guilty about leaving an actual nomination off, something is definitely wrong.

  2. I think I would go with To Be or Not To Be as well, but that is simply because I like it better. However, since I have watched very few of these movies my opinion is not a well informed one.
    I did see Woman of the Year though and had much the same reaction to it. Hepburn and Tracy was a great pair, but they did much better things than this.

    1. Honestly, you're not missing a ton when it comes to the actual nominations. The Bing and Bob Road movies are fun, but they should never really be the sort of thing that is the best in any category.