The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1941

I think we can get this out of the way quickly by saying that 1941 is a travesty. Citizen Kane clearly should have won Best Picture, and didn’t because, well, William Randolph Hearst had a lot of influence. How Green Was My Valley wins Best Picture in a cop out decision. John Ford wins Best Director for it too (which goes with the territory).

Gary Cooper wins Best Actor for Sergeant York (talked about here), which I don’t like, but can’t really argue with. Then Best Actress was Joan Fontaine for Suspicion, which is kind of a makeup Oscar for the year before, and also a kind of best case scenario. Though I’d personally have gone with Greer Garson here. And Best Supporting Actress was Mary Astor for The Great Lie. Not a very memorable film or performance, but, she also played Brigid O’Shaugnessy in The Maltese Falcon, so I’m very okay with the decision.

And then we have this category. I’m not sure what I think about this. On the one hand, Donald Crisp gave a solid performance, but on the other hand, I have a clear personal favorite, and there’s also another “year” candidate (that is, one person had such a strong year, I can’t see how they didn’t get it based on that). I don’t know. I just don’t really like this decision.


And the nominees were…

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

Brennan — Walter Brennan was never winning this. He won three times in five years, the last one being the year before this for The Westerner. Another one, they’d have to call it the “Walter Brennan Award for Best Supporting Actor.” I think they realized enough was enough. That said —

Sergeant York is a great film. Gary Cooper plays a country hillbilly who is a great shot, but a waste of life. He goes around, drinking, shirking responsibility and being a nuisance to his community. He’s also staunchly a pacifist. One day, he gets struck by lightning and changes his ways. With the help of Walter Brennan, the local preacher, he finds god. Then he decides to go enlist for World War II. However, he refuses to fight. But, he’s a great sharpshooter, so they want him. They let him think it over, and if he doesn’t want to fight, they’ll send him home. He decides to fight, and ends up killing a lot of people with his good aim, and even ends up capturing an entire platoon of soliders that were about to capture his platoon. He becomes a national hero and that’s the film.

Walter Brennan plays the preacher, and it’s a typical Walter Brennan performance. He shouldn’t have won for it, though. That’s pretty much that. Why waste time when three prior victories speak for themselves?

Coburn — Charles Coburn is an actor you just knew would win one of these one day. Problem is, when he did win it, he deprived Claude Rains of his well-deserved Oscar. Such is life.

The Devil and Miss Jones is a fun film. It’s about Charles Coburn as a millionaire (always the millionaire. The millionaire or the poor man. Kind of like Rodney Dangerfield) who is upset at the employees in his department store for trying to unionize. He decides to go undercover as an employee in his store in order to see who it is and root out the guilty parties. He applies for a job, and, not having any experience, is placed in a shoe store. The manager is a real self-entitled dick. As an owner, he’d have loved this guy, but now, seeing how the other half lives, he writes his name down in a little book to fire him once this whole business is over. Then he meets Jean Arthur, a fellow employee, and strikes up a friendship with her (despite her boyfriend being the leader of the unionization attempts). And he even strikes up a romance with another lady who works at the store. And they all think he’s a poor man who can’t afford to eat. So they all become friends, and he starts to realize why they’re trying to unionize and even agrees with them. And of course, it’s a screwball comedy, so there’s a whole fun set of scenes where Coburn is in a room, fighting for the unionizers against himself, basically, while all his employees, who know its him, have to play hardball against the employees but also cater to whatever he wants. It’s a very fun film.

Coburn, as always, is great. The problem here, though, is that it’s a lead role. He’s “the devil.” He’s the main character. So I can see why he didn’t win, for that and for the performance. However, he was also in (and was wonderful in) The Lady Eve this year. And it surprises me that, with both performances under his belt, he didn’t get the Oscar. I say this mostly because I wish he won here so Claude Rains could win for Casablanca, because we all know that’s definitely the performance he should have won for.

Crisp — How Green Was My Valley is a good film — don’t think it’s bad. It’s just, it’s reputation will always be tainted because it beat Citizen Kane. That’s really the only knock against it. It’s not really a Best Picture winner.

It’s about a family of Welsh coal miners, and their lives. It’s a John Ford film, so it’s got that whole community aspect. And basically it’s about the family dealing with a bunch of issues — 40s movie stuff. Doomed romance (not, death-wise, just, one that won’t work out), boy saving his mother from drowning and losing the use of his legs, father being very strict and refusing to listen to the boys when they want to unionize, and the boys walking out on the family because the father tells them to stop or be thrown out, a strike (which involves the whole town, since the town revolves around the mine), then the “John Ford” scenes of the older brothers teaching the younger one how to fight, beating up their teacher, etc. It all ends with the father dying in the coal mine.

The film is good, and it looks great. It’s shot really well. Thing is, it’s not better than Citizen Kane (or a few other nominated films this year). But Donald Crisp is strong in the film. He really does a great job as the father. I can see why they voted for him. I personally wouldn’t, just because — personal preference always takes precedent (and other acronyms, by Mike) — but I can understand why he won.

Gleason — Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a film I guarantee you’ve seen. You know how I know that? Because it’s the exact same film as Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth. I know you’ve seen one of these versions. And if you haven’t, here’s a synopsis:

A boxer (or football player or comedian, depending on your version), dies in an accident. Thing is, he wasn’t supposed to die. But, the angel sent down to take out the bodies decided to spare him the pain and pulls him out of his body just a second before it happens. He didn’t realize the man wasn’t supposed to die. So he goes up to heaven, saying he wasn’t supposed to die, and is taken to Mr. Jordan (or King. Played by Claude Rains, James Mason or Chazz Palminteri, depending on your version). Mr. Jordan realizes he wasn’t supposed to die and tells the man they’ll fix it. They go to take him to his body, but, he’s already been buried and cremated. The body is no longer there. So, they decide, they’ll find another body. In the meantime, they give him a loaner body, that of a millionaire whose wife and assistant (who are lovers) killed. So he shows up, as the millionaire, freaking out the wife and assistant, and meets a woman. He falls in love with her. He also tries to get back to where he was before (a championship match, the Super Bowl, or playing at the Apollo, depending on your version), by contacting his former coach/mentor (James Gleason, Jack Warden or Frankie Faison, depending on your version), convincing him he is who he is, and training. However, the body is a loaner and he loses it. He’s upset because he’s in love with this woman who is in love with the millionaire. However, it all works out in the end when he gets a boy of someone who is in the position he wants, and also manages to meet the girl at the end (despite not remembering being the former him). It’s a great film (depending on — actually, no, it’s just a great film).

Gleason plays Max Corkle, which, is the choice role of the film. It’s the most comedy heavy role. Corkle gets to show up to a millionaire’s house, not knowing why, and having this man tell him he’s his friend who was killed. Then he finds out this dude isn’t lying and is actually his friend. Then he agrees to help him train, even though no one else will ever understand it. Then, once the guy is killed like he was supposed to be, he’s being contacted by his friend’s spirit, all the while a policeman is interrogating everyone as to where the millionaire’s body is, and there’s this great slapstick scene as he’s dealing with a ghost and the police at the same time, and then listens as his friend goes and achieves what he wanted to (though I think Down to Earth had the Corkle character die, which was so stupid), and then goes back to congratulate him, only to realize he doesn’t remember anything. It’s a tricky role, and a funny one. Gleason does a great job with it. Though I wouldn’t vote for it. This is a nomination only type of role, especially with the competition he’s got.

Greenstreet — And Mr. Greenstreet. Caspar Gutman, the fat man. Is there anyone who thinks he shouldn’t have won this award, hands down? This is by far the most memorable performance on this list. Come on, now.

The Maltese Falcon — has anyone not seen this movie by now? And if so, what kind of movies do you watch? — is about Sam Spade, a low rent detective in San Francisco whose partner is killed one night. Then, very suddenly, he gets embroiled — as all detectives do — in some shady business, all involving one coveted statue. Midway through the film, Sydney Greenstreet shows up:

He’s after the bird for money. He relates to Spade the history of the bird, and is basically planning on sing Spade as the fall guy for all the murders that have happened in the quest to find it. He basically acts as the exposition, but he does it in such a way that it really works. It’s his cool nature about the whole thing. Even when the bird is fake, it’s, “Oh, well, that happens. Let’s go to Istanbul.” That’s what makes the Gutman character so great. There’s no way I can’t vote for it. So I’m just going to vote for it and move on.

My Thoughts: For me, it’s only Greenstreet. Then Coburn. Then Crisp. Still, it’s Greenstreet, and that’s that.

My Vote: Greenstreet

Should Have Won: Greenstreet

Is the result acceptable?: I guess. I mean, I don’t like it, but, I’m not really sure what the basis is for it being acceptable. Maybe? I think Greenstreet should have won. And maybe, if Coburn won here, he wouldn’t have beaten Claude Rains in 1943. So — not acceptable? It wasn’t Walter Brennan for the fourth time, so, that’s something. But, I think Greenstreet would have been the best decision overall, and Coburn the best alternative. Crisp was good too. So, I don’t know. Can’t really call this one.

Performances I suggest you see: The Maltese Falcon. Shouldn’t you, as a person, not even a movie person, necessarily, just as a human being, understand that you need to see this film? And even if you do like movies, like, marginally, shouldn’t you know twofold how much you need to see this movie? Basically, if you haven’t seen it, you’re a terrible person. This is just as big as Citizen Kane and Casablanca. You should not be a film major if you haven’t seen this.

How Green Was My Valley. Great film, highly recommended, and I think you should see it just so you can see what beat Citizen Kane. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it.

The Devil and Miss Jones. Very enjoyable, lot of fun. Not amazing. Coburn and Arthur would make a better movie in two years with The More the Merrier. But worth checking out. Anything with Charles Coburn in it is worth seeing. The set up alone is interesting enough to tell you that you should see it.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan. I love this movie. You need to see one version of it. I personally say you should see the Warren Beatty version, Heaven Can Wait, but this one’s a close second. The Chris Rock version, Down to Earth, is enjoyable, but not the one to watch. Watch it, but don’t use that as a substitute for either of these two. Either way, you need to see one version of this story. It’s like A Star is Born — how can you not have seen one of them? They make one for every generation.

Sergeant York. Probably an essential film. Once you hit a certain level of film fandom, it becomes essential. It’s a classic movie. Once you look for war movies to watch, you’ll find this one pretty quickly. It might also be your grandfather’s favorite film. Either way, it’s great, and you almost definitely need to see it. So just see it. It’s amazing.


5) Brennan

4) Gleason

3) Crisp

2) Coburn (with or without The Lady Eve)

1) Greenstreet

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