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.
For just anybody but Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy would be the highlight of a career. For Curtiz, I'm not sure it makes the Top Five.ReplyDelete
Fair enough. It's a fine film for all of its flaws, though.Delete
Allegedly, Cohan himself, after seeing the film, praised it and then sarcastically asked who it was about.
Psst ... I think Ernst Lubitsch directed To Be or Not to Be. I'm with you on Wyler ... possibly among all the films. Mrs. Miniver may have some flaws - not many - but his direction was flawless I think.ReplyDelete
Yep--my mistake. Thanks for the correction.Delete
Mrs. Miniver does have a few flaws and it veers far from reality in terms of just how deprived the people of England really were, but it's a hell of a propaganda film.
Of these five I'm in agreement that Mrs. Miniver is the right choice and I love the film but in an open field it wouldn't make my list of nominees.ReplyDelete
I like the mention of I Married a Witch, Rene Clair did much to make the material a gossamer charmer but much like Cagney and Yankee Doodle Dandy it's Veronica Lake (and Cecil Kellaway) who makes the film golden. I'd say the same for Irving Rapper, Bette Davis and Now, Voyager.
There are a few who might not be nomination worthy but who turned in fine directing jobs. The first is Frank Tuttle for This Gun for a Hire, a film which has exerted much influence and proved enduring over the years. William Keighley handles the madness of The Man Who Came to Dinner well though it remains very much a filmed stage play powered by Monty Woolley, Ann Sheridan and Mary Wickes.
The last two films you sited are fine films but wouldn't make my list. Welles and Ambersons even in its compromised form definitely belong among the nominees. I think Preston Sturges for Sullivan's Travels and Hitchcock for Saboteur (not everyone is crazy for the film but I love it) deserve consideration. Then there's two balancing acts made by masters. The first is Billy Wilder for The Major and the Minor who takes potentially distasteful material and with a light touch makes it a delight. But my winner would be Ernst Lubitsch for the brilliance of To Be or Not to Be.
I like Lubitsch as a nomination here, but I'm sticking with Coward and Lean. I think it gets war films right in that it doesn't sugar coat anything. It's a tragedy, yet still manages to have the sort of necessary uplift and nationalistic feel.Delete
And I must admit that To Be Or Not To Be is Lubitsch's masterpiece, from a guy who could take credit for a lot of great movies that you could also call masterpieces without any disagreement from me. It's just that I've seen Yankee Doodle Dandy a lot more times that I've seen To Be Or Not To Be.ReplyDelete
I'm not sure I'm willing to limit Lubitsch to a single masterpiece.Delete
I have not watched the two movies you would have preffered. That is probably a miss.ReplyDelete
Unlike everybody else I am not infatuated with Mrs. Miniver, though that is probably more a problem with the screenplay than direction. It does what it sets out to do, I just do not like that very much.
I agree that Yankee Doodle Dandy belongs among the nominees, but Best Direction for me goes to To Be or Not to Be. In some ways it reminds me of Dr. Strangelove by approaching a terrible and sensitive subject with humour and thereby makes us swallow it. It worked for Kubrick and it worked for Lubitch.
The Magnificent Ambersons belonged among the nominees. Welles was a better director than actor and he did this one very well.
I recommend Went the Day Well? if you want a really unusual homefront movie. In Which We Serve, as I've said a number of times, is about as close to a perfect war movie as I can think of. It hits all the notes well and does so without being sappy or showing its hand.Delete
How was the underrated "Bambi" passed over?ReplyDelete
Easy--no one thought that animated movies were potentially the same as live action at the time, and when it comes to direction, my guess is that most people, even in the Academy, figured that the director of an animated film didn't actually have to do anything.Delete
It's Lubitsch for me.ReplyDelete
It' also interesting to note that Wyler said he would have done several things differently with Mrs. Miniver if he had made it after the war.
For me, the biggest problem with Mrs. Miniver is that it doesn't really portray the reality of what was going on. The privation was so severe that it couldn't really be shown--no one would have believed it in the U.S.Delete