Monday, January 22, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1941

The Contenders:

Blossoms in the Dust
Citizen Kane
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Hold Back the Dawn
How Green Was My Valley (winner)
The Little Foxes
The Maltese Falcon
One Foot in Heaven
Sergeant York

What’s Missing

You’d think that with ten nominations, there wouldn’t be a lot of room for fixes, but I’ve got plenty I’d rather see here. In fact, I’d likely bump at least the bottom five. High Sierra might get a little consideration from me, as might Sullivan’s Travels, which I did not like as well on a rewatch. The Devil and Miss Jones is perhaps too flighty and lightweight, although it’s tremendously fun. I can say the same about The Lady Eve, while I Wake Up Screaming may have been too tawdry for Oscar’s tastes. It’s clearly genre considerations that keep The Wolf Man off the ballot. Admittedly, the best part of The Devil and Daniel Webster was the grinning performance of Walter Huston, who was nominated for the role. And, of course, my love of Barbara Stanwyck will not let me ignore a mention for Ball of Fire.

Weeding through the Nominees

10. I really hated One Foot in Heaven for the smarmy, faux-righteous pain in the ass it turned out to be. Filled with sanctimony and “blessed” with a main character who expresses more concern over his books than his children during a house fire, there was nothing in this movie I liked. That’s sad, considering it stars Fredric March. If you’d like to be preached at by someone who is smugly convinced he is better than you (and willing to bribe people to prove it), be my guest. There’s no reason this should be here.

9. I can respect a good bit of ultimate winner How Green Was My Valley, but there isn’t a way to get me to like the film. It’s not merely depressing; it’s willfully so, with virtually every character repeatedly making the worst choices possible at every opportunity. That this won the Best Picture Oscar over so many better and unnominated films feels tragic and sad. Time has not been kind to this film or to this choice. It’s not a terrible movie, but there isn’t much call to say it’s a great one, either.

8. Blossoms in the Dust is a social issues movie, the issue in this case being the fate of illegitimate children. I like Greer Garson well enough and the issue isn’t a bad one, but this plays out as melodramatic in the extreme. Not even being the only nominee on color can change the fact that this is really filmed in the soft, pastel tones of emotional manipulation. There appeared to be enough real drama in the real story to make a movie; The clearly manufactured moments therefore don’t sit too well.

7. Sergeant York is a fine biopic, but it hits a couple of danger areas for me. First is that it feels very glurgey in the sense that our eponymous sergeant goes from raucous wild man to pious soul after a conversation. This seems to be historically accurate, but it’s still grating. A much bigger problem is that the film takes a stance that seems to glorify war. I know we were on the cusp of war in 1941 and such films can have value, but seriously, this film comes across as thinking that glory on the battlefield is all to which we should aspire.

6. The biggest problem I have with Suspicion is that Cary Grant is terribly miscast. It would be possible for Grant to play a true rogue and possible killer, but it would require a lot more work in the early part of the film to set that up. Being suspicious of Grant isn’t enough, because we’ll always give him the benefit of the doubt. The plot works, or at least could, but with someone other than the too-easily likable Grant in the main role. It’s not bad, but I’m not sure it’s anything more than mildly good.

5. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a fun film, a cute little goof that isn’t very serious and plays out sweetly without being saccharine. There are massive plot problems, though, and when I say this, I am not referring to a soul being transplanted into a new body. No, it’s the real-world aspects of this film that stretch the story’s credibility more than anything else. It’s fun and harmless, and good enough to make it to the top half here, but no further. It might make my list of nominations, but it would do so in tenth place.

4. I liked Hold Back the Dawn almost in spite of itself. It’s nicely cast and the story is interesting, even if it tends a bit toward the melodramatic. It could have easily become incredibly drippy, though, but Billy Wilder was a smart enough screenwriter to prevent that from happening. There are some good ideas here and some good overall moments. With 10 nominations to play with, I don’t think this makes my top-five, but I think it’s likely to sneak in toward the bottom of the stack.

3. With The Little Foxes, we’re getting a film that could potentially contend in a different year. This plays to all of the strengths of Bad Bette Davis, and there are good performances around her throughout. But the best performance here might well be that of William Wyler and his deft use of camera to force the audience to pay attention to precisely where he wants us to moment by moment. In another year, I’d give this serious consideration, but sadly for The Little Foxes, it was released in a year with two of the greatest films ever made.

My Choices

2. Gun to my head, The Maltese Falcon is my favorite movie of 1941. It’s intricate and slippery, and yet completely rewatchable even when you know all of the ins and outs and plot twists. It’s a smart movie, the kind where every person in it is perfectly cast and tuned to perfection. In the history of film noir, there are a couple of movies that could be looked at as the purest prototype of the style. Of them, The Maltese Falcon might be the closest thing we have to a template that defines the entire movement.

1. That said, Citizen Kane is clearly the most important and significant film of its year and probably the greatest achievement in film of its decade. I know there are people who don’t like it, and I suspect there are those who say they don’t like it to seem hip, trendy, or iconoclastic. Well, they’re wrong. Citizen Kane--and I don’t say things like this often—is objectively a great film from start to finish. It’s fine to not like it, but that doesn’t diminish exactly what Welles was able to accomplish with it. It’s what filmmaking should be, and while I’d have been happy with The Maltese Falcon winning, the statue really belonged here.

Final Analysis


  1. I could not agree more on your top two and your argumentation. I truly enjoy The Maltese Falcon, but Citizen Kane is objectively superior to anything else in 1941.
    I could definitely see High Sierra get a nomination, it has some very interesting rough edges.

    1. High Sierra would be an interesting nomination, but I'd go with one of the last three I mentioned (or all of them) before I went with it.

      I don't think I'll get much push-back on my choices for this year.

  2. I'm also in full agreement with your top 2 and your argument for them. Citizen Kane is a marvel of filmmaking and should have been the winner.

    1. Of these, The Little Foxes is worth tracking down. The others are worth it in some degree, but not really worth a huge amount of effort.

      But yeah, Citizen Kane was revolutionary.

  3. As you said with 10 nominations you would think they would have scooped up all the best there was to choose from, and there was a good deal. That 6 of what did get the nod could have been left by the curbside in favor of others shows that passion of the moment and political maneuverings behind the scenes is nothing new.

    Right off the mark I’d knock out:
    One Foot in Heaven-I didn’t hate as much as you but didn’t care much for either. What it was was a waste of an enormous amount of talented people.
    Sergeant York-Cooper’s good and York was an admirable man ultimately but the picture is so didactic.

    Suspicion-A bland miss by Hitch.

    Blossoms in the Dust-Love Greer and I liked this movie but I’m at a loss why this was nominated. The social issue angle is good but it’s more of a star vehicle.

    Here Comes Mr. Jordan-This is a wonderfully sweet fantasy that is loaded with charm and an irresistible turn by James Gleason but I don’t see it belonging in the lineup.

    How Green Was My Valley-There’s some very compelling pieces in this and some lovely work by Sara Allgood and Donald Crisp (LOVE him and glad he has an Oscar but that he won this year instead of Sydney Greenstreet’s inimitable Kasper Gutman is unfortunate.)

    Of what’s left I’d include Hold Back the Dawn in a field of 10 but it would be closer to the bottom than it finishes here.

    I’m not a hater of Citizen Kane, it’s an extraordinarily crafted, terrifically constructed film that I don’t harbor a great deal of affection for. Absolutely deserving of its nomination and I can understand all the calls for it to win especially against Valley but it wouldn’t be my pick.

    The Little Foxes-Considering this was a massively successful play and is in many ways set bound it’s a real achievement that it doesn’t feel so which can be firmly attributed to Wyler’s hand and the compelling performances. In many other years it would be my choice to win.

    The Maltese Falcon-Endlessly rewatchable with a cast that couldn’t be bettered, an involving cogent script and flawless direction that makes it remain fresh after all these years as it must have been in ’41. It’s no contest for me that this should have won.

    As to what was left out. Love the mention of I Wake Up Screaming which is a terrific film though I doubt that it was even given a second look at the time. I’m surprised that none of Barbara Stanwyck’s big successes of the year, Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve & Meet John Doe, made the cut considering their quality and their director’s reputation. Same goes for both High Sierra (which really belongs in the lineup) and Sullivan’s Travels. I love the hard noir edges and brooding atmosphere of both Ladies in Retirement and Blues in the Night as well as the winsome nostalgia of The Strawberry Blonde. I think any of them would have been better choices than that top six.

    There is one more that comes to mind that I’m not overly fond of-They Died with Their Boots On but it seems like the sort of film that would have been right up the Academy’s alley over something like Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

    1. I have absolutely no issue with The Maltese Falcon as a pick. I've seen it...well, I've lost count of how many times I've seen it. It still works frame by frame and beat by beat, and yes, it's endlessly rewatchable.

      It really comes down to achievement vs. enjoyment in this case. The Maltese Falcon is more enjoyable for me, but Kane is such a monumental achievement of the medium that, even if it's not a film that has those warm feelings for it, makes it a film that is objectively great.

      But hey, I put both of them as possible winners for a reason. I'm not sure how seriously I could take a third choice.

    2. I love They Died with Their Boots On so much! They get a lot of points just because somebody said "Hey! How about Sydney Greenstreet as Winfield Scott?"

    3. I suppose I should add that to the list, then.

  4. Replies
    1. Yeah, I'd happily accept either of the top two as a winner. I can't seriously imagine someone picking anything else.