Sam Wood: Kings Row
William Wyler: Mrs. Miniver (winner)
Mervyn LeRoy: Random Harvest
John Farrow: Wake Island
Michael Curtiz: Yankee Doodle Dandy
1942 was the first year that the U.S. was fully immersed in World War II, and so naturally there are plenty of propaganda films and plenty of melodramas designed to keep people’s minds off of the troubles in Europe and Asia. Films like Rene Clair’s I Married a Witch and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People were never going to get any love come Oscar time, even in a non-war year. The Academy had begun it’s hate/hate relationship with Orson Welles by this point, and The Magnificent Ambersons was ravaged by the studio, keeping him off the docket. Gary Cooper is clearly the best part of Pride of the Yankees, but given the choice, I think I’d rather see Sam Wood nominated for it rather than Kings Row. There are four films where I think I can make a strong case for the director. The first is Irving Rapper and Now, Voyager, a film that really wants to flirt with melodrama, but manages to be beautiful in its own right. The second is Ernst Lubitsch (thanks, Marie) and To Be or Not to Be, a film that draws a great deal of humor out of something terribly unfunny. The last two are propaganda films that are surprisingly effective. I’m a big fan of Noel Coward’s and David Lean’s In Which We Serve. It’s possible that Albeto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? goes too far in places for a 1942 audience, but I think it’s a hell of a movie.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. Given the straight propaganda films that were available to us for 1942, I seriously wonder at the inclusion of Wake Island and John Farrow over the other options. There’s nothing specifically wrong with Wake Island; it’s just not that spectacular. We know (or people in 1942 would know) that the men in the film are doomed, and because of that, we don’t really get to know them very well. The last two films I mentioned above give us that same propaganda hit, but also give us much more fully-realized characters and well-directed action sequences.
4. I said in the opening paragraph that if I wanted to give Sam Wood a nomination, I’d be much more likely to nominate him for Pride of the Yankees than for Kings Row. This is a wildly melodramatic film, which certainly wasn’t uncommon for the time. But it’s just melodramatic, while Pride of the Yankees is at least inspiring and contains a truly memorable performance from Gary Cooper. There’s nothing here that shouts that Sam Wood did anything that interesting, so I’m not sure he belongs as a nominee.
3. Random Harvest is probably the most melodramatic movie of this year, although there may be some that I simply haven’t seen. It’s absolutely the most melodramatic of the films nominated and the drippiest of the films from 1942 that I have seen. Despite this, Mervyn LeRoy manages to get some really solid performances out of his cast, which just about makes the film worth watching. For a film that dives this far into sappiness, LeRoy does what he can with it. I still probably wouldn’t nominate him, but his work isn’t bad here.
2. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a hagiography of George M. Cohan and it’s completely over the top, but it’s also completely engaging. In truth, James Cagney is the main reason to watch this and he always will be. He’s always an engaging presence, and it’s so interesting to see him as a song and dance man rather than a gangster. Give Michael Curtiz some credit here. Sure, he seems to be reaching into the same patriotism sack as Frank Capra, but he does it really well here. This could have been a dud, but it’s more than watchable, and Curtiz is a big part of that.
1. There’s no real shock to me that Mrs. Miniver won a lot of Oscars for this year. In a lot of ways, this was the propaganda film that people needed. For the British, it was a stylized and idealized version of their own suffering. For the Americans, it was a way to connect to the suffering of the British people who were suddenly our allies. Wyler’s work is good, and I think in many ways this was the film that people needed, so it was natural to reward it. It’s the right choice for the five nominees, but given an open field, I’m going to go elsewhere.
Good propaganda films are something I find incredibly interesting. While Mrs. Miniver is a damn good one, I’m much more partial to the other two I named at the top. Alberto Cavalcanti may have taken himself out of the running with some really brutal implied violence in Went the Day Well?, but today, I think he’d be much more likely to get a nomination. I’d give this to Noel Coward and David Lean, though, because In Which We Serve is close to the perfect war film, and much of it comes from them and how it was filmed.