Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Oscar Doesn't Need a Kane

Joan Fontaine:
Best Actress for Suspicion

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1941

The 14th Annual Academy Awards have it all: retroactive Oscars, major snubbing, backstage politics, and even sibling rivalry (which not even death fully healed).  This was the first year where sisters were up against each other for Oscars the same year, something that has happened only once since. We also have the first and I believe only time that a person named Oscar won an Oscar, and what an Oscar won an Oscar...none other than Oscar Hammerstein II, one of THE great lyricists of the Twentieth Century.  However, Hammerstein's win for Best Song was the beginning of a small crisis at the Academy.

The Last Time I Saw Paris from Lady Be Good was not written for the film itself.  Jerome Kern, who wrote the music, was disturbed that The Last Time I Saw Paris won a category called Best Original Song when the song wasn't original to the film it won for.  At the time, it was permissible for songs in films to be nominated for Best Original Song without being specifically written for the film itself.  However, after their win Kern lobbied to have the rules altered to have the nominated songs be written specifically for the film itself.  As a result, all succeeding Best Original Song winners were actually written for the films themselves.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1941 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS




Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley)
Mary Astor (The Great Lie)
Patricia Collinge (The Little Foxes)
Teresa Wright (The Little Foxes)
Margaret Wycherley (Sergeant York)

It is almost always the case when two actors/actresses from the same film are nominated in the same category, they tend to cancel each other out.  Sometimes it doesn't happen (F. Murray Abraham beat out his fellow Amadeus nominee Tom Hulce), but take that as a general rule of thumb.  Therefore, The Little Foxes cut each other out.   We now have three relatively small performances, and out of those it was Astor who emerged the winner.  Not having seen The Great Lie I cannot say whether it should/shouldn't have won, but I can say that Astor could be relied on to play two types with equal aplomb: the Madonna (Meet Me in St. Louis) and the Whore (The Maltese Falcon). 



Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley)
Mary Astor (The Great Lie)
Patricia Collinge (The Little Foxes)
Teresa Wright (The Little Foxes)
Margaret Wycherley (Sergeant York)

For the moment, I am going for the strict but loving mother in How Green Was My Valley, as sentimental a performance in a sentimental film as has been made so far.  Her scene when she calls out all those miners who wouldn't stand with her husband and family, condemning them for their collective cowardice was a highlight of a great movie.



Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley)
Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon)
Dorothy Comingore (Citizen Kane)
Margaret Dumont (The Big Store)
Maria Ouspenskaya (The Wolf Man)

One of the things that I think helped Astor win was the fact that she had given a bravura performance in The Maltese Falcon, one of the great film noir films before noir came to be.  However, I think another factor was that Astor was 'blessed' not to be involved with Citizen Kane, a movie that despite its brilliance and nine nominations managed only one Oscar, for Original Screenplay (and even that I think had more to do with its credited co-screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, than anything else.  Fortunately or not, thanks to Mank's win we are either cursed or blessed with his grandson, Turner Classic Movie weekend host/At the Movies co-killer/unabashed lefty Ben Mankiewicz).  How else to explain the failure of Comingore as "not Marion Davies" Susan Alexander Kane to not receive a Supporting Actress nomination? 

As the na├»ve and innocent second wife, who goes from sweet to virtually destroyed and bitter to mournful, Comingore gave a brilliant and heartbreaking performance.  However, given that later on even Orson Welles felt that his portrayal of "not Marion Davies" as a hopelessly pathetic untalented drunk went too far (using Rosebud, rumored to be William Randolph Hearst's pet name for that 'special part' of Davies as the object everyone is looking for and talking about, I'm sure didn't help).  Both The Great Lie and Astor's performance are pretty much forgotten (whether rightly or not I cannot say), but Comingore and her performance fortunately are not. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Walter Brennan (Sergeant York)
Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones)
Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley)
James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon)

It must have come as a shock when Donald Crisp won Best Supporting Actor, namely because it a.) wasn't a showy performance by any stretch, and b.) Walter Brennan was among the nominees, and he had won in all his other nominations.  Perhaps by now even the screen extras that had given 'one of their own' the margin of victory had had enough of Brennan and felt he'd been honored enough.

Donald Crisp won the only acting Oscar in How Green Was My Valley as the stern but loving father who doesn't admit to the changes in his comfortable world with unions and his children leaving (his sons for America, his daughter to marriage to the mine owner's son).  It is a very strong and moving performance, and his death scene is still a very powerful moment in a film awash with nostalgia.



Walter Brennan (Sergeant York)
Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones)
Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley)
James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon)

Curiously, despite the breath of great performances in The Maltese Falcon, only one was singled out for recognition, that of Sydney Greenstreet's Kaspar Gutman, or "the Fat Man".   He certainly wasn't going to outfight Bogart or anyone, but what made him dangerous was that he could manipulate and outwit his foes.  Greenstreet created an iconic character, and it's hard not to think of him when thinking of The Maltese Falcon.  It usually is Greenstreet (The Heavy...no pun intended), Bogart (The Gumshoe), and Astor (The Femme Fatale) who come to mind when thinking of the noir classic. 

Yes, Greenstreet tended to play the heavy (again, no pun intended) but he could do comedy (Christmas in Connecticut) and it was sad he wasn't given enough chances to show a lighter side (sorry, no pun intended part III). 



Charles Coburn (The Lady Eve)
Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane)
Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley)
Claude Rains (The Wolf Man)
Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon)

Again, I marvel at the Academy's selection process.  Only one acting nomination for Citizen Kane, only one acting nomination for The Maltese Falcon, and two nominations for How Green Was My Valley (both in supporting roles, ignoring some equally great leading roles).   Even worse, some great actors were never to receive nominations.  Take a look at my choice for Best Supporting Actor.

Joseph Cotten was brilliant as Jed Leland, Kane's best friend who saw first-hand Kane's slow moral corruption.  True to his own values but conflicted about what his friend had become, Cotten (minus his make-up work as the Old Jed) gave a smashing performance.  Despite his work in Citizen Kane, in Shadow of a Doubt, in The Third Man, and even Niagara, Cotten was never deemed worthy of consideration.

Again, I marvel at the Academy's selection process.    

BEST ACTRESS



Bette Davis (The Little Foxes)
Joan Fontaine (Suspicion)
Olivia de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn)
Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust)
Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire)

Let's call this episode Revenge of the Retroactive Oscar!

Having lost for more superior work in Rebecca (though at the moment, I can't say she lost to a weaker performance), the Academy decided to make it up to Fontaine by giving her the Oscar for playing a variation of the Second Mrs. De Winter in SuspicionSuspicion is one of the few Hitchcock films that I didn't like, thinking it slow and a little boring.  The same can be said for Fontaine's character, and I found her performance a little more mannered than her brilliant turn in Rebecca (which makes me like this film and this win even less).  In the 'unforeseen circumstances' division, Fontaine's win made her already testy relationship with her sister de Havilland more problematic (seeing as de Havilland had yet to win).  Fontaine earned a place in the record books as being the only actor/actress in a Hitchcock film to win the Oscar, and when we think of the performers who weren't even nominated, it sets one's blood to boil.




Bette Davis (The Little Foxes)
Joan Fontaine (Suspicion)
Olivia de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn)
Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust)
Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire)

Fontaine's "We're Sorry You Lost Last Time, Here You Go" win also meant that Barbara Stanwyck, one of THE great actresses, went home alone...again.  Stanwyck I think really could do it all: she could play straight drama (Stella Dallas), she could play comedy (Ball of Fire), and she could play the ultimate in femme fatale (Double Indemnity).   Of course, the Academy, being what it is, has a real hard time with comedy, which explains so much. 

That, and the fact that Fontaine had lost the year previous, probably doomed Stanwyck's chances.



Bette Davis (The Little Foxes)
Irene Dunne (Penny Serenade)
Vivien Leigh (That Hamilton Woman)
Maureen O'Hara (How Green Was My Valley)
Barbara Stanwyck (The Lady Eve)

Again, you really need more proof that Barbara Stanwyck could do it all?

While she was nominated for Ball of Fire, she could easily have been nominated for The Lady Eve (as the duplicitous con artist turned good for love) or Meet John Doe (as the cynical reporter turned good for love).  It's interesting that all these performances are remembered and revered today, but the winner (Fontaine) is not for her winning role but remembered more for her losing role.

BEST ACTOR



Gary Cooper (Sergeant York)
Cary Grant (Penny Serenade)
Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy)
Robert Montgomery (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

Don't tell me the Academy doesn't look down their noses at comedies.

In these Tuesdays With Oscar retrospectives, I have nominated Cary Grant four times and had him win already for The Awful Truth.  All those nominations came from comedies save for Only Angels Have Wings in 1939.  However, despite the fact that his co-stars were nominated in some of these films (Ruth Hussey, James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn for The Philadelphia Story, Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth), at long last we have Grant receiving his FIRST nomination!  And is it for a comedy?  Certainly NOT!

Instead, it is for the sentimental drama Penny Serenade, and with all respect for Grant he wasn't going to win when he was up against an average Joe (Montgomery), a newspaper baron (Welles), and a war hero (Cooper). Why the Academy singled Grant out for THIS particular performance while ignoring all those that came before I'll never understand.  However, the winner is Cooper for his heroic turn as the dissolute drunk turned believing pacifist turned war hero Alvin York. 



Gary Cooper (Sergeant York)
Cary Grant (Penny Serenade)
Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy)
Robert Montgomery (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

And guess what?  I'm not giving it to Grant this year either!

Cooper's turn as Sergeant York is legendary and beloved, but my choice would be the sole acting nomination for Citizen Kane.  It's interesting that Welles made a biopic of sorts but one where we are no closer to knowing who Charles Foster Kane was at the end of the film than at the beginning.  He is an idealist turned bitter reactionary, a bon vivant turned old stick-in-the-mud, a people's champion turned hardened industrialist.  Welles makes Kane into a wholly human person, with all the flaws and virtues within us all.  The yearning for 'Rosebud' and what it represented to him, his disintegration, genius, and folly.  One couldn't ask for a greater and more spectacular debut.



Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon)
Gary Cooper (Sergeant York)
Henry Fonda (The Lady Eve)
Joel McCrae (Sullivan's Travels)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

Even more bizarrely, I wouldn't give Welles OR Grant the Oscar if I were in charge of them this year.  I found three great performances that were overlooked: Henry Fonda's befuddled boob/patsy in The Lady Eve, Joel McCrae's turn as the director trying to make 'a picture with dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity...with a little sex in it' in Sullivan's Travels, and my choice.

In a stunner, Bogart's iconic and standard-setting detective in The Maltese Falcon was not nominated.  It certainly was a great year for actors, but for me, the best performance is Bogart's Sam Spade, the sarcastic gumshoe who while not the best of men, was the best of detectives with his own moral code; he's the type of guy who knows she's a bad woman, but one still worth waiting for...once she's out of prison.

BEST SONG

Baby Mine (Dumbo)
Be Honest With Me (Ridin' on a Rainbow)
Blues in the Night (Blues in the Night)
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B (Buck Privates)
Chattanooga Choo-Choo (Sun Valley Serenade)
Dolores (Las Vegas Night)
The Last Time I Saw Paris (Lady Be Good)
Out of the Silence (All-American Co-Ed)
Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye (You Were Never Lovelier)

Now you know why I HATE writing down all the nominees.  Who remembers some of these songs?

Actually, this year provided some really good songs.  As stated already The Last Time I Saw Paris was not written for Lady Be Good, and the kink of having non-original songs after this year got worked out.  This isn't to say it isn't worthy: The Last Time I Saw Paris is a beautiful song.

However, I think the nostalgia was more for a Paris no longer around, as the French had lost their war with Germany and the world was bracing for a global conflict.  We have other great tunes associated with World War II: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B and Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and one song that never fails to make me cry (Baby Mine from Dumbo).  All would be worthy of the Oscar, but I'm going for another nominee, one that I think both stands the test of time and is a brilliant number...




From Blues in the Night, Blues in the Night, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

Talk about a Dream Team of Music: Music by Arlen, Lyrics by Mercer, and interpreted by ELLA!

BEST DIRECTOR

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

In retrospect, Ford's selection isn't such a horror.  How Green Was My Valley was perfectly directed, drawing great performances from his cast (including a young Roddy McDowall and Maureen O'Hara) and is beautiful-looking too.  Still, it's interesting that in Ford's third Oscar win it still isn't for a Western.

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

Of course, as great a director as Ford is, and as influential as he was to people like Welles, there is simply no denying what Welles did as a director.  It isn't just how he handled his actors, but in how Kane moved!  The techniques, the cinematography, the sound editing...everything about Citizen Kane is just brilliant.  In any other year, I would have gone for Ford.  This year, there's no way around it...Orson Welles wuz robbed!

John Ford (How Green Was My Valley)
Howard Hawks (Ball of Fire)
John Huston (The Maltese Falcon)
Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

Granted, he was helped by having some of the best directors that year not nominated. No slam against the other nominees, but when you see what directors were doing that year: people like John Huston (like Welles, in his directorial debut) and Preston Sturges (who brought us both The Lady Eve AND Sullivan's Travels), he would have faced stiffer competition.

And now, The Best Picture of 1941...




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

Well, again, IF this were any other year...

It's unfortunate that How Green Was My Valley has been damned in certain circles because it beat out another film.  Let's call it the The Greatest Show on Earth of its time.  On The Rotten Tomatoes Show, co-host Brett Erlich (who is not as funny as he thinks he is or as politically astute as he thinks he is either) called How Green Was My Valley the Worst of the Best, mocking the Welsh setting and the singing that there was in the film. 

He obviously never saw Cavalcade or Gentleman's Agreement

The unfortunate thing about How Green Was My Valley winning is that it blocks out the fact that the film itself is quite good, perhaps a bit sentimental, but still expertly crafted and with an emotional punch that still hits you.  We also have some other good choices: The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, and a little art-house feature...




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

Were you expecting me to pick Blossoms in the Dust or One Foot in Heaven, perhaps? 

Citizen Kane is the Greatest Film Ever Made...and a pretty good movie too.  Again, Citizen Kane is one of those films that has been mummified by its reputation, something people might be afraid will be boring or worse, educational, because so many critics love it (myself included).  However, once you see Citizen Kane, you will not only see what all the fuss is about (a breathtaking feature that moves and is decades ahead of its time), but you will find a wildly entertaining story of a good man who corrupted himself thanks to his hubris and need to find 'love on his terms'.

How to explain Citizen Kane's loss is simple, much more than the simplistic "Hollywood was cowed by William Randolph Hearst" scenario.  Let's look over a few things.  Oscar loves to reward real winners (those that make money) and Citizen Kane was not a box office hit.  THREE Abbott and Costello films were bigger hits than Kane, and both How Green Was My Valley and Sergeant York were popular with audiences (at Numbers 5 and 1 in box office receipts respectively).  I also think Welles did himself no favors by showing off what a genius he was.  If you see the trailer for Kane, you see he doesn't show you almost anything about the movie itself, and seems almost contemptuous of his audience when he shows some chorus girls and comments they're there just to be there.  I imagine that many Academy voters were just rubbed the wrong way by the Boy Wonder and his Mercury Theater players from New York.

Finally, there just may have been some Academy members who thought the other films were better than Citizen Kane.  Hollywood is not known for its intellectual prowess.  Yes, some of the voters were cowed by their studios (who in turn were cowed by Hearst) against the film, but some others might have felt loyalty to Marion Davies (viciously portrayed as a talentless drunk harpy rather than the talented comedienne and elegant host she was, even if she did drink too much) or just liked Gary Cooper more.  Who's to say? 

Ultimately, I don't think it was some massive Hollywood cabal against Kane, but certain other factors that sank Citizen Kane receiving the reward it truly deserved.

And Now, MY Choice for the Best Picture of 1941 based on MY Choices...


Citizen Kane
How Green Was My Valley
The Lady Eve
The Maltese Falcon
Sullivan's Travels

There isn't anything that would make me change me mind about Citizen Kane deserving the title Best Picture.  However, given how there were other good films that year, I do wonder why some of them were not nominated.

It must be that 'comedy is bad for you' thing the Academy has.

There is a reason why I refer to the Ultimate in something as "The Citizen Kane of..."  Frankly, in terms of cinema, Citizen Kane is indeed the apex, the standard to which all other films are measured.  Yes, Citizen Kane is the Greatest Film Ever Made, but give it a chance...you might enjoy it too.

Tuesdays With Oscar will be taking a short sabbatical of about three or four weeks so I can catch up on some other reviews along with some personal matters, but I am so looking forward to keep looking back to see where the Academy went wrong...and right.

Next Time, The 1942 Oscars. 

1 comment:

  1. The Maltese Falcon and Sergeant York are my favorite from that year. I do agree that Bogart should have won Best Actor, although Cooper did an excellent as York. Ball of Fire was a lot of fun too.

    -James

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