Monday, May 6, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1942

The Contenders:

49th Parallel
Kings Row
The Magnificent Ambersons
Mrs. Miniver (winner)
The Pied Piper
The Pride of the Yankees
Random Harvest
Talk of the Town
Wake Island
Yankee Doodle Dandy

What’s Missing

It’s rare, but every now and then I come across a year where I like all of the nominees, at least marginally. When it happens in a year with 10 nominations, that’s pretty surprising. Still, there’s plenty of room for improvements here, and there are a good half dozen films that I like better than several of the nominations. We can start with the ones that would never be nominated, which include Cat People and I Married a Witch. To Be or Not To Be, as a comedy, is right on the edge of potential nomination. In a year where a propaganda film won Best Picture, it’s a bit shocking to me that two of the best from World War II--Went the Day Well? and In Which We Serve--were skipped (although, to be fair, In Which We Serve swung a nomination the following year). For me, the big miss is Now, Voyager.

Weeding through the Nominees

10. I said at the top that I liked all of these films at least marginally, and of those that were marginal, Random Harvest was the most so. It features some very nice performances, but this is otherwise straight out of the syrup factory, about as glurgy as you’re going to find. For a propaganda film (and at some level, that’s what this is), it’s too drippy to be that interesting. The performances save it. I’ll take anything in the paragraph above over this any day of the week. It’s passable, but not nomination-worthy.

9. Kings Row is the film that fought with Random Harvest for the bottom spot, and part of that is because Ronald Reagan is one of the best parts of the film. This is another one that presses the pedal down on the melodrama and never really lets up until the final credits roll. The film isn’t bad, but it’s also one I wouldn’t call great, and not one that I would ever think to watch a second time. That complete lack of interest on my part is something that doesn’t speak well of a film’s chances to win Best Picture, and it’s what keeps Kings Rowout of the running.

8. Of the bottom trio of films, The Pied Piper is the one that is perhaps the most interesting. Is it supposed to be a comedy? Is it a propaganda film? Does it have a serious message? The answer to all of these questions is at least vaguely affirmative. The Pied Piper is far too short, though, and while the story that props it up is one that has a great deal of potential, not a lot is done with that potential. It’s one that could honestly stand a better treatment. I’d see this again, but I’d rather see it reimagined and with more depth.

7. Wake Island is, in some ways, the quintessential propaganda film. I don’t mean that it’s the best of the breed, but that it’s more or less the sort of thing that you think of when you think of propaganda films. The story is a good one, if stuck heavily in war movie clich├ęs. The big issue is the rather ridiculous use of stock footage. It’s one thing when the plane being shot down is a different one than is shown attacking. It’s a very different thing when the strafing Zero turns into a crop-dusting biplane.

6. Mrs. Miniver is a fine movie, and probably the one that the Academy and the American population needed to have win. It is a very good propaganda film, one that manages to capture the emotional privation of the war in England without really touching on the reality of the desperate food and supply situation. My placing it this far down is not a knock on the film at all. It’s simply that I like a lot of the other films from 1942 a lot more than I do this one. It’s a fine winner, and one impossible to object to completely, but for me, it barely scrapes a nomination.

5. Of all the nominations Talk of the Town, with its bonkers plot combined with, at one point, a rather serious discussion of the law, is the one that I’m surprised that I liked as well as I did. It’s a film that suffers pretty greatly from multiple-personality disorder in that it’s a comedy that has a very serious undergirding, or a drama with a screwball comedy plot. But it’s a film that manages to pull this off surprisingly well, in no small part because of a dedicated group of actors who give everything to make it work.

4. It’s a gutsy move in the middle of a war to make a movie where the only consistent characters from start to finish are the enemy, but 49th Parallel makes that work surprisingly well. It’s a good war film, but a very odd propaganda film because of this fact. It’s also odd in that it focuses on Canada, but seems very much to have been made for an American market. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, although it clearly knows what it wants to be. I’m just not sure that what it wants to be is something that necessary. This is not, by the way, a dig on Canada or Canada’s effort in World War II.

3. Evidently, Yankee Doodle Dandy is so far away from the truth that, after seeing it, George M. Cohan quipped that the movie was good, but he wondered who it was about. Regardless of this, it’s one of the truly stellar performances from James Cagney back in his heyday, and a clear reminder that he could do more than just play gangsters. Cagney is by far the best part of the film, and, despite the wide gap between the film and reality, it’s a surprisingly entertaining film. Cagney won an Oscar for it, and honestly, that’s what the film really deserved.

2. While The Pride of the Yankees certainly has the story and the will to dip into melodrama, it manages to make that work far better than many movies. The problems with the film are more about the reality of Gary Cooper not being a lefty and not looking that convincing as a baseball player, and have nothing to do with the plot or the story being told. It’s a damn good movie, and one of the better baseball movies in American history. I wouldn’t have complained too much had it won.

1. One of the great tragedies of American cinema is not that The Magnificent Ambersons was edited without the approval of Orson Welles, but that the removed footage was destroyed. Even with that, and even with an edited-down, truncated, bastardized version of the film, this is the best of the nominations. It would have been my pick for 1942 if I were limited to the nominations, and even were I not, it would be a pick that I could justify. However, it’s not my ultimate choice for the best film of this year.

My Choice

That distinction goes to Now, Voyager as a representative of one of the purest romances ever made. Oh, there’s a real chance for melodrama here, but the film generally avoids it. This does not mean that it doesn’t go for the kill or that it won’t pluck every heartstring it can. The best thing about it, though, outside of the perfect performance of Bette Davis, is that it ends exactly as it should. It’s a film that could never be remade with modern morality or social norms, and I think that’s a good thing—it means that this is the only version of the story that is likely to exist.

Final Analysis

6 comments:

  1. I see your point about Mrs. Miniver being the film that needed to win and I do love the film but it really doesn't belong in the winner's circle considering all the other films this year.

    I don't love The Magnificent Ambersons as much as many do, through no fault of its own it's terribly flawed, but even in its bastardized state it is probably the best of the nominees. What really burns me is Agnes Moorehead's loss for her role the film in Supporting Actress, even moreso than Gladys Cooper who is brilliant in Now, Voyager but no one bested Agnes this year.

    I'm also with you on leaning towards Pride of the Yankees for runner-up out of this flock but in an open field with a cap of five it wouldn't even make the cut.

    Though it wouldn't be mine I can't fault Now, Voyager as your winner. It is a superior movie in every way, and yes the ending comes at exactly the proper moment.

    My nominees list would run this way and in this order:

    To Be or Not to Be-Winner-It seems incredible now but this wasn't critically embraced nor that big of an earner when it was released and coupled with the tragedy of Carole Lombard's death just before it came out which sort of put the hex sign on it, it's not that surprising that this was ignored but for me its the best of the year.

    Now Voyager
    The Magnificent Ambersons
    Sullivan's Travels
    I Married a Witch

    Saboteur, Pride of the Yankees, This Gun for Hire, Mrs. Miniver and The Major and the Minor would all be jockeying for spots were it a list of ten.

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    1. Limited to five, my list would have some similarity to yours. The main difference (apart from the winner) would be that I probaly wouldn't include Sullivan's Travels, as that is generally considered a '41 release.

      My five would have Now, Voyager winning, followed by (in some order):
      Went the Day Well?
      In Which We Serve
      The Magnificent Ambersons
      To Be or Not to Be
      .

      How depressing is it for a nomination class that, in a field of 10, you and I each picked out a single movie to keep in a top-five list?

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    2. Obviously the nominating body or bodies were missing something, of course the voting was different at the time often controlled by a studio block, but even though only Ambersons made the cut for both of us the rest ARE good films, even though I didn't like Kings Row there's no denying it was assembled with great care and has good pieces to it-I just hated the source material and some of the casting choices.

      Then some of them, This Gun for Hire for example were viewed as genre pictures which rarely made the cut and your two British pictures were more than likely shut out by the homegrown Mrs. Miniver and the star powered 49th Parallel.

      Looking back now To Be or Not to Be appears to be the biggest miss but in the context of the times it's really Now, Voyager. It was both an enormous financial and critical hit with a decent if not huge haul of nominations and unlike the other misses no parallel film that would seem to have taken it's slot.

      If Sullivan's Travels (and its another one with 10 spots to be filled that I don't understand how it was shut out) is a '41 film, the release dates are often confusing-it looks like it wasn't released in the States until January of '42 but played in Portugal of all places in December of '41!-than its slot in my lineup would go to This Gun for Hire.

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    3. I agree that the rest are good films. I'll probably never watch Kings Row or Random Harvest again, but I found both at least good enough to say that I liked them. But neither one has any business being nominated for Best Picture in a year that skips over so many good and worthy films.

      What you say here is really my question about the lack of a nomination for Now, Voyager. While I think Went the Day Well? is a hell of a good film, 49th Parallel is very similar in a lot of ways and Mrs. Miniver is a different story of the British home front. There's crossover there. There's nothing really for Now, Voyager.

      I have no explanation regarding Sullivan's Travels and its release date. IMDb lists it as a 1941 movie, but also lists the release date as February, 1942. Since I have neither the time nor the inclination to verify every release date, I just go by listed years on IMDb, Wikipedia, and Letterboxd. It would seem, based on the American release, that it would have been elligible, and given that fact, would likely make my short list.

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  2. To Be or Not to Be is the clear miss here. This is a truly awesome comedy, but perhaps that notch ahead of its time. It think that would be my winner for 1942.

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    1. I can't say you're wrong. It's not my choice, but it's not a choice I would hate.

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