The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1941
1941. What can you do here but shake your head? Citizen Kane is almost entirely shut out from the Oscars in favor of How Green Was My Valley. Best Picture, Best Director for John Ford (his third, out of four, and second in a row), and even Best Supporting Actor for Donald Crisp, who beat out Sydney Greenstreet for The Maltese Falcon. What can you do?
Also this year, Joan Fontaine wins Best Actress for Suspicion, which is about as blatant a makeup Oscar as you can get (and yet, a good choice. Even though she deserved to win the year before this, everything ended up working out okay), and Mary Astor wins Best Supporting Actress for The Great Lie, which — I don’t think anyone even remembers that particular category, so it doesn’t really matter that much (though she also played Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, so, even she won for another film, I think we can all be cool with that).
But really though, no matter which way you cut it, the blatant snub of Citizen Kane (mostly because of William Randolph Hearts’s doing), really leaves a black mark on this year that will always be there. We can’t pretend that it’s even remotely okay, even though it means nothing.
BEST ACTOR – 1941
And the nominees were…
Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
Cary Grant, Penny Serenade
Walter Huston, The Devil and Daniel Webster
Robert Montgomery, Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
Cooper — Oh, Gary Cooper. The biggest dick in Hollywood. Not the man. He was probably a really nice guy. It’s just a story that he had a really huge cock. Apparently he would brag about it all the time. I just thought that was an appropriate way to start.
Sergeant York is an interesting film. It has this reputation for being such a wonderful and great film — and it is — but it’s also kind of blatantly propaganda. I guess all war films from 41-45 are, in a way. Casablanca is too, in its own way. This is one of those films where, at first the main character wants nothing to do with the war, then by the end is totally converted. Casablanca I can get behind, because — well, if you haven’t seen Sergeant York, listen to this.
Alvin York is a hillbilly. He can shoot a gun real well, but he’s a ne’er do well. He drinks a lot and fights a lot, that sort of stuff. The first half hour of the movie is just him going around doing his thing. Then, one day, he’s struck by lightning and turns his life around, with the aid of Walter Brennan. He’s the town priest, but, if all I say is Walter Brennan, I think that covers it even better than if I said town priest. So he shapes up, cause his girl needs a man, and her heart is set on him. But then, war breaks out. World War I. That’s what I love about war movies and westerns — they can always find a way to talk about exactly what’s going on even if they don’t talk about exactly what’s going on. He tries to avoid being drafted because he’s a conscientious objector — he’s got the religion in him. He gets drafted anyway, and they soon find out how good he is with a gun, so he gets promoted. His C.O. gives him time to go home and think about things. He gives him a history book and says that if he still doesn’t want to fight, he’ll be discharged. He reads the book, decides to fight for his country, and goes back (though he still doesn’t think he can kill anyone). During a battle, he sees his platoon dying, and suddenly finds himself killing a shitload of Germans, and when all is said and done, he and a couple other men find themselves with over a hundred prisoners. Then he becomes a hero. He then rationalizes what he did by saying he did it to hasten the war and end the killing. Then he goes home, gets a new house, and “I’m gonna go home and sleep with my wife.”
I do like this film, and it’s really well made, and is actually one of the least “Howard Hawks” films of the Howard Hawks films, but I still can’t get over how pro-army it is. And I’m just not cool with that. I mean, it’s Pro-America, but, “I killed all those people to make the war over faster so there’d be less killing”? Really? But still — it is a great film. That’s just something I need to get over when I watch it. I need to pretend that it’s part of the film and that’s not what they’re actually saying with it.
Anyway, Gary Cooper’s performance. Well, let’s put it this way — taking Orson Welles out of the equation, since I think we can all agree that he was the best and deserved to win but didn’t because he and the film were fucked over, Gary Cooper would probably be the guy I’d vote for here. Maybe. I mean, it is a great character, and everybody likes Gary Cooper. I’m talking about, individual of history. Him having won for High Noon is really all he needed. I mean, he wasn’t that good of an actor to need two Best Actors. I’m assuming strictly 1941 here. Knowing he won, no, I wouldn’t put him anywhere near a vote. I’d probably vote Cary Grant, because he never got one, and that’s a travesty. But it’s all moot, since Orson Welles really should have won here, and they gave it to Cooper instead. So it is what it is. He’s fine in this movie. He’s Gary Cooper. When is Gary Cooper not exactly what he always is?
Grant — The fact that Cary Grant never got an Oscar is somewhat disturbing to me. The Academy must really frown on comedy. Because the only two times he was nominated were for dramas and/or romances. That’s just so weird to me.
Anyway, this film is about a marriage. Grant and Irene Dunne, at the beginning of the film, see their marriage falling apart. And she’s about to leave him, and is packing her things, when a record comes on. Guess which one? (Hint: The title.) And that record provides the framework for their marriage. We flash back to them meeting, and him going into the record store where he works and taking up all her time just to talk to her. Then they get married and go to Japan where he becomes a rich businessman. Then she gets pregnant, and they’re very happy. And of course, as it always happens, an earthquake hits. She loses the baby and is unable to have any more children. So then they try and adopt. They go on a waiting list and try to get a child, and they end up getting a baby girl. And then a large chunk of the film is then getting the baby and taking care of it. There’s a great scene where they have their first night with the baby, and she starts crying and they try to get her to sleep. Then she goes to sleep and they try to be quiet, and then they make a bunch of noise but she doesn’t wake up. So they get worried that something is wrong when they start making a lot of noise. Then they get quiet again and the baby wakes up and starts crying. Stuff like that. It’s pretty good. Then we see them raising the kid, and then he gets laid off, and we see them struggling to make ends meet after that, and then their marriage starts to fall apart, and we end up right where we started, with her about to leave, but the song makes her realize why she loves him and they make up again.
It’s a really good film. I liked it a lot. I can’t recommend it very highly to everyone, because I think some people might find it insanely boring. I, for one, loved it. I loved how simple it was, for the most part, and how you could just watch it. Some films you watch and you have to put effort into it. This one just gets your attention, takes you from beginning to end, and you can just go along wherever it takes you. I liked that. Grant and Dunne are both good in the film. I can’t see specifically why they nominated Grant for an Oscar here. He seems to be just as good as he is in just about everything else he does, but, hey, I’m not complaining.
Personally he probably should have been nominated for His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, since, if you’re gonna let a comedic performance win over Charlie Chaplin and Henry Fonda, at least let it be Grant’s instead of Jimmy Stewart’s (though, Stewart’s was a total ad blatant makeup Oscar, and I accept that. I’ve detailed it all here. I’m just sayin’). And then, in 38, the category was so weak he probably could have won it for Bringing Up Baby. I mean, it’s not exactly an Oscar performance, but look at that category. It’s weak as hell (outside of Jimmy Cagney). Anyway, my point here is, I can’t vote for him, because Orson Welles is your clear winner here, but he definitely goes second for my vote, purely because he’s Cary Grant. If the Academy can award popularity Oscars (see: Best Actress, pretty much any year. Or rather, see: The Oscars), so can I.
Huston — What a great actor Walter Huston was. I’m on the record — though maybe not yet. Maybe I haven’t actually talked about it yet — as saying he should have won Best Actor in 1936 for Dodsworth. As it is, he won Best Supporting Actor for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which makes everything okay, since he’s more of a character actor than a leading man. But, man, he’s great in everything he did.
This film is a very famous story, I’d be very surprised if you didn’t know it. Also, to clear up any confusion, the film is known both as The Devil and Daniel Webster and as All That Money Can Buy. Back in 1941, another film was released, called The Devil and Miss Jones, which coincidentally was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category with the great Charles Coburn, and they changed the title so as not to have audiences confuse the two. Clearly they wanted people to think the devil is heterosexual.
So the film is about a poor, but happy farmer, who goes through a rough patch. While toiling away, he says, “I’d sell my soul for some good luck,” at which point thunder hits, and out of the fog comes — Walter Huston. Please allow him to introduce himself — his name is Mr. Scratch. But, won’t you guess his name? You can probably guess the nature of his game. He comes and tells him he’s a lot luckier than he thinks. Why, if he just looks right under his barn, there’s a lot of Hessian gold, which coincidentally just happened to be there for a long time. And Mr. Scratch makes him sign a contract — in blood, naturally — that he’ll get seven years of good luck. And all that other stuff is fine print. You know, that soul part and stuff. So he signs it, and things get better. A big hailstorm comes, and his crops are the only ones that come out okay. Which is weird, because Forrest and Lieutenant Dan went to Jesus and he saved their shrimping boat. I guess — one if by land two if by sea? So, he gets good luck, gets really rich. Then he becomes an asshole. Not by choice, it’s just — side effect, you know. Mr. Scratch brings in one of his “lady friends” — who is actually Simone Simon, from Cat People (oh yeah…her) — who replaces a house servant, and pretty soon has the dude wrapped around her finger. And his son too. And she slowly exerts a bad influence on the men, and they become assholes. And eventually the seven years is up, and the devil comes to collect. The dude doesn’t want to, because he says he was tricked into signing it. Meanwhile, Daniel Webster, a prominent politician in the state, has been friendly with the dude for the whole time, and he notices the change in him and such. And it gets to the point where, he tells Webster about what he did, and Webster agrees to take the case. He tells Mr. Scratch he wants to see him in court, that the agreement was not binding, because a man’s soul belongs to his family and his country.
So they go to trial, and Mr. Scratch stacks the deck against them, by making the jury the most evil men of history, including Benedict Arnold. And he gets around this by saying, “They were all Americans.” And the way Webster gets Scratch to agree to go to trial is by putting his own soul on the line as well. So Webster tries to argue his case. The best part of the trial is when Scratch gets up as the prosecution. He’s just like — “Contract. The defense rests.” And sits down. It’s fucking great. And then Webster gets up, and tells the jury that they were all great Americans once, there for the founding of the country, by they, like his client, were fooled into doing what they did, and if they had another chance, wouldn’t they go another route? He says that his client has a chance to save his soul, unlike them. He found out in time. He appeals to their sense of patriotism, telling them to allow him the opportunity to have all the American freedoms they once fought for. He tells them not to let the country go to the devil, and to free the man. And they end up doing it. However, Scratch, upset, tells Webster he’ll “never be President.” Which is a wonderful touch, because Webster was always touted as someone who would be President one day, and never actually got there. And the play at the time was a great way to spin the whole thing and be like, “This is why.” I always liked that.
Also, the great part of this movie is the very very end. Everyone celebrates — Webster, Stone (the main dude), his wife (Anne Shirley), and Ma (Jane Darwell — but you know that at Ma) — and then they cut to Mr. Scratch, having stolen their celebratory pie and eating it on the roof. And then he looks in his book about who to go to next, and then this happens —
How fucking great is that? In 1941, too. That probably scared the shit out of young children and Catholics in the audience. I think that’s a touch of genius.
So, Walter Houston’s performance. He is fucking magical. Seriously. He is amazing here. Easily my second favorite performance. The only reason I don’t really want to vote for him is — he’s really a supporting character. He disappears for large chunks of the film. He totally should have been nominated Supporting. He would have won, most likely, too. I’m not sure why they put him lead. Wouldn’t it have been great if he won Supporting for playing Satan? Satan and Santa Claus would have had Oscars. Anyway, he’s really fucking good, but as much as I want to vote for him, there’s Orson Welles, and this is really a supporting performance.
Montgomery — Wow, what a stacked year this is, between iconic actors, iconic films, and iconic stories. You remember how iconic The Devil and Daniel Webster was? Well, watch this. Have you heard of the film Here Comes Mr. Jordan before? No? Well, how about this. Have you seen either of the films Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty or Down to Earth with Chris Rock? Well then, you’ve essentially seen this film.
It’s about a boxer who’s about at his prime, when he goes down in a plane crash. However, as he’s going down, the angel that was sent to collect the dead souls to bring up to heaven, wanting to ease their suffering, pulled them out before the crash, assuming there’s no way he could have survived. Problem is, the dude wasn’t supposed to have died for another fifty years. The angel fucked up. So they bring him up to heaven, where they meet Mr. Jordan. Now, the Mr. Jordan role is a very famous role. In Down to Earth, it was Chazz Palminteri. In Heaven Can Wait, it was James Mason. Here, it’s Claude Rains. You can see how they downgraded with each sequel. So Mr. Jordan sees the mix up and tells the angel to just put him back in his body before anything happens. Problem is, it’s too late for that. So, since they fucked up, they agree to put him in another body. However, until one is ready that fits his qualifications, they give him a loaner body meantime. Heaven — it’s just like auto repair. So they put him in the body of a businessman who was just drugged and left to drown in his bathtub by his wife and her lover. Starting to remember it now?
So he goes into the body, and in it, well, the wife gets freaked out, but also, he meets another woman. And he falls in love with her. Problem is, he forgets that the body is temporary. And he also uses the body to talk to his boxing trainer, who assumes he is dead. But he convinces him he’s him by playing his saxophone as badly as he did when he was alive. And he gets the trainer to train him and to arrange a fight with the champ, just as he was gonna do when he was alive. But Mr. Jordan reminds him the body is just a loaner. But he doesn’t listen. He falls in love with the lady and stuff, when eventually he’s shot by his wife and returns to heaven. Now he’s upset, because he wanted that body, but they tell him is was inevitable that this man was gonna die. So what they do is, they find the body of another boxer, the guy who got the champ fight instead when he died (the second time), he just happened to die the night of the fight. So what they do is, they switch him into the guy’s body so he can go to the fight, and no one would know. What happened was, the dude wouldn’t throw the fight, so he was shot. But since no one saw it happen, the guy gets up like nothing happened and beats the champ. However, at this point, his memory is erased, so he has no memory of the previous life, and thinks he’s the other guy from then and forever. And the end is when the woman comes to the locker room, looking to talk to the trainer, and meets him, and the pair have a feeling as though they’ve met before, and it ends with you knowing they’ll end up together after all.
It’s a wonderful film, no matter which version you watch. Though personally I’d go for the Beatty version first, this second, then the Chris Rock one third. But anyway, Montgomery is really good in the role, but it’s not one he was ever gonna win for. It’s a shame, because it’s a great part and he did a really good job. But he’s no better than fifth on this list. Which sucks, but goes to show you how stacked this year is all around.
Welles — It’s Citizen Kane.
My Thoughts: Yeah, I know it’s Sergeant York and all, but have you seen Citizen Kane? He plays the dude over the span of like fifty years. This is a no-brainer. Plus, Cooper got another one for High Noon, so he didn’t really need this one. Plus he could have won the year after this, since he was great in Pride of the Yankees. It would have fucked over James Cagney, but he should have won in 1938 for Angels with Dirty Faces, where they stupidly gave Spencer Tracy a second Oscar for doing nothing. Anyway, my point is, Orson Welles really should have won here. I mean, it’s no contest. (Also, to clarify up there, I figure the film widely regarded as the best movie ever made requires the least amount of explanation. You should already know how good Welles was and not need any explanation. But if you saw it already, you’d know that. Because it’s obvious if you’ve seen it.)
Just so we’re clear. Orson Welles is #1 here. Cary Grant is my #2. Walter Huston is my #3. Gary Cooper is my #4. Robert Montgomery is my #5. That’s the order I felt they should have went in giving the award. So for my money, they went with the 4th best choice. Which would have been more okay if they didn’t fuck over Citizen Kane everywhere else.
My Vote: Welles
Should Have Won: Welles
Is the result acceptable?: No. But yes. Because at least now we can say it was part of the corrupt influence of William Randolph Hearst. Individually though, no, not really. But also yes, because now it can stand as the biggest snub of all time. So, you know — both. But also no.
Performances I suggest you see: One, it’s Citizen Kane. I think you understand. Two, Sergeant York is also kind of an essential film. But not really. I mean, it’s classic, and if you really want to be a hardcore film person you should definitely see it. It’s also really good. It’s worth watching. It’s a great war film that doesn’t actually have too much war going on. The Devil and Daniel Webster is a wonderful film, and I suggest you see it anyway — even though you’ve probably seen some version of it before — for Walter Huston’s performance. I guarantee you that you will enjoy his performance. No matter who you are. Guarantee it. And Here Comes Mr. Jordan, you should see. I suggest, if you only want to see one version of the story, you go for the Warren Beatty Heaven Can Wait version first. But this is a solid second there, and you can see both and it wouldn’t be a worthless endeavor. It’s often enlightening watching an earlier version of a film, seeing what changed and how they did or didn’t do things differently. Still, see one version of this film. And lastly, Penny Serenade is a wonderful film, but I don’t know if it’s for everybody. So do your homework on it. If you love Cary Grant and/or Irene Dunne, this is a no brainer. If you love classic films, this is kind of a no brainer. You should check it out. You might really enjoy it. At worst it won’t be for you, but I don’t think you’ll feel cheated by it. And isn’t that all we want out of our movies? So, I suggest you see these all. These are all great films. But I recommend them in the order I said. Just so that’s clear.