Friday, May 1, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1941

The Contenders:

Orson Welles: Citizen Kane
Alexander Hall: Here Comes Mr. Jordan
John Ford: How Green Was My Valley (winner)
William Wyler: The Little Foxes
Howard Hawks: Sergeant York

What’s Missing

There are a number of movies I like from 1941, but many of them don’t specifically have exceptional performances from the director’s chair. Take, for example, Ball of Fire. Fun movie, but what exactly did Howard Hawks do there? Preston Sturges for The Lady Eve and/or Sullivan’s Travels might be a good call, and I’d have nominated John Huston for The Maltese Falcon. Beyond that, I don’t really have a lot to say here.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I enjoyed Here Comes Mr. Jordan quite a bit, but this is one of those films where I don’t see much from the director. In fact, this is a case where I think the good parts of the film come specifically from the cast and the parts where I have an issue come in the pacing and the plot, at least some of which is the director’s responsibility. It’s a fine little movie and I have a warm fuzzy for Claude Rains, but Alexander Hall had no business in this company and he should have given way to John Huston.

4: I’m bumping Sergeant York next. There’s something about this film that is like biting on a piece of tinfoil for me, and I can only blame Howard Hawks because I refuse to blame Gary Cooper. This isn’t a bad film, but regardless of how close to reality it sticks, it feels like it’s been run through the washing machine and “Hollywood-ed” up to make it palatable for middle America. That really is my main problem here, and while that might well have come from the studio, the film has Hawks’s name on the director line, so he gets the blame.

3: There’s a part of me that’s a little surprised that How Green Was My Valley made it to third place. This is one of those films that is probably better than I give it credit for being. There’s a certain amount of hangover here that it beat both The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane for Best Picture. It really isn’t a bad movie, but it is a depressing one, and John Ford did a lot better in his career. Ultimately I don’t hate this film or even this nomination; I just don’t love it.

2: When I think of movies of this era, I tend to have particular expectations. The Little Foxes broke a lot of those with the use of camera. William Wyler places a very elaborate game of misdirection here, always keeping us focused exactly where he wants us. We miss some major events happening because Wyler has us focused on other characters in another place, and there’s a particular mad genius to that. I wouldn’t have been terribly upset if Wyler had won, but he still wouldn’t have been my choice.

My Choices

1: No, it’s all about Citizen Kane. I think I’m a bigger fan of The Maltese Falcon, but Citizen Kane has everything I want in a Best Director winner. This is a film that is innovative, makes use of sophisticated film techniques, uses unique camera angles, and was made with guts, brass, and balls. Welles was personally nominated for three Oscars for Kane and never nominated for another one for his entire career. He won for Original Screenplay, but lost here. He should’ve won here, but that's what you get for making the Academy your enemy.

Final Analysis


  1. Before I say anything else, I wanted to say something about Sergeant York. It's quite possibly the best propaganda film ever made. Not knowing the context of the time, you can't even tell that it's a movie with an agenda because the true story is amazing to begin with and the people who put together were all so good at what they did. And also, they were very sincere and believed in the cause so strongly.

    It was also a bit of a wasted effort on that front because isolationist sentiments were looking more and more ridiculous when Sergeant York opened at the end of 1941. And then December 7 rolled around and it wasn't ridiculous anymore so much as treasonous.

    I love Sergeant York, by the way.

  2. 1941 is a very very tough year, and I'm with you that John Huston's direction on The Maltese Falcon is a major omission for the Oscars. I would have a hard time choosing between Huston and Welles.

    But there's one movie you missed that makes this even harder: Suspicion, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I seem to like it a lot more than most Hitchcock fans. (It's my favorite Hitchcock.) I watched it three times last year and it's always fresh.

    Hitchcock, Wells or Huston. For me, it's gotta be ... Alfred Hitchcock.

    1. My issue with Sergeant York is that it hasn't aged particularly well. It's also a case where, regardless of how accurate it may be to the real story, it feels like it's been sanitized.

      As for Suspicion, I can't comment. It's one of the Hitchcocks that is on my list that I haven't seen yet. I'll get there, though.

    2. You're such a big Cary Grant fan that I'm surprised you've never seen Suspicion!

      I can never decide if my favorite Cary Grant movie is Suspicion or The Awful Truth. Probably Suspicion. The last time I DVRed Suspicion, I kept it a dew days so I could watch it again almost immediately. I've never done with that with The Awful Truth.

    3. "Best Cary Grant movie" is an easy choice for me: North by Northwest. That's also my choice for "best Hitchcock movie," "best 1950s movie," and "best freakin' movie every made."

  3. I am with you all the way here. Citizen Kane is a director's tour de force. It is Welles movie 100% and he almost reinvents the media. If that is not a director's movie, I do not know what is and then it actually matters less if you like the movie of not. He should have been rewarded for what he did.
    I agree with you 100% on Sergeant York and How Green Was My Valley. They must have been picked for other reasons than director's effort. I like your tin foil comment. That is exactly how I felt.
    John Huston was probably too new at the game to be recognized for the Maltese Falcon and my guess is that the Academy was not ready for the seediness of film noir. In retrospect we can give it the credit it deserve but I suppose it was difficult to know at the time that this movie would herald an entirely new genre that would dominate Hollywood for a decade.

    1. And that's really what it comes down to for me. Welles reinvented what we could do with movies. There's a shot early in the film where the camera is moving toward a skylight. During a lightning strike, the camera moves through the window seamlessly--it's subtle, but it's also magnificent in how well it works. And Kane is littered with moments like that.

      You're probably right about The Maltese Falcon. It might just have been too new.

  4. No doubt that Welles' achievement on Citizen Kane towers above anything else from 1941.

    It is worth mentioning Raoul Walsh, who had a good year. Both High Sierra and They Died With Their Boots On are ambitious productions that are very well put together.

    1. I've seen High Sierra. It's a solid film, and might deserve further consideration. I haven't seen The Died with Their Boots on.

    2. They Died with Their Boots On is a movie I inexplicably adore far beyond its actual merit. It's just so well-crafted in so many significant ways that I can completely forgive it for being revisionist fluff.

      Erroll Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland.

      Sydney Greenstreet as Winfield Scott!

      "Garry Owen" every five minutes.

      So much fun!

  5. I haven't seen The Little Foxes yet. You've made me look forward to it a little bit now.

    For me there's no other choice but Citizen Kane. Everything else is so far behind you can't even see them from there.

    1. I agree. Had The Maltese Falcon been nominated, it would have been a much closer second place, but still very much second place.

  6. For these five I would line them up the same way. I agree totally about Mr. Jordan it's the cast that drives the film, the direction is just sort of following them around.

    Welles direction is deservedly storied but I love how Wyler keeps the action varied in Foxes. The pivotal staircase scene with Bette and Herbert Marshall is a great deal of Davis's performance but his positioning of the camera for the impact of the two shot is brilliant. It's a close call.

    I'd keep the two of them replace the other three with Raoul Walsh for High Sierra which he makes wonderfully tense, Preston Sturges for the light as air The Lady Eve and John Huston for Maltese Falcon. If that had been the lineup Huston would have been my pick over Welles. Kane at times feels stodgy now while Falcon never does.

    1. I was really surprised at just how engaging I found The Little Foxes, and a huge part of that comes from Wyler's work with the camera. It's a little surprising that the film isn't better known, because it's a damn workshop on camera use.

      I agree completely on Huston. If I could only add one, he'd be my pick, and he'd battle with Welles for the top position.