The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1942

1942, to me, is a lot of bridesmaids without a bride. I understand why Mrs. Miniver won Best Picture — it’s a solid film, a wartime story, and it’s about family, and that’s what they needed during WW II — but to me, there could have been a better choice. And yet, of the rest of the choices, the only films I could see possibly voting for over it were, 49th Parallel, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pride of the Yankees, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. But of those, 49th Parallel isn’t a good choice, Ambersons was so creatively compromised, Dandy shouldn’t have won, and Pride of the Yankees, while my favorite film nominated, feels like a lesser choice, historically, than Mrs. Miniver.

Teresa Wright also won Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver, which is a great decision, since she probably should have won Best Actress this year (in this man’s opinion), but Greer Garson (who also won for Miniver) really needed to win because she was passed over the year before this so they could give Joan Fontaine her makeup Oscar. So what ended up happening was, Fontaine wins, bumps Garson to here, and Garson bumps Wright to Supporting, so everything worked out. Then Best Actor this year was James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy, a decision I’m sure everyone loves (to me, Gary Cooper was better in Pride of the Yankees, but he won the year before this, so it all worked out). And Best Supporting Actor was Van Heflin in Johnny Eager, which, I don’t like, but, in a category that weak, it’s not like it matters at all.

And this category — pretty simple. Comes with the territory. Sure, based on the fact that he won three times, you could say, “Give it to someone else here,” but, honestly, I don’t see anyone else with an effort that deserves to beat it.


And the nominees were…

Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy

John Farrow, Wake Island

Meryn LeRoy, Random Harvest

Sam Wood, Kings Row

William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver

Curtiz — Yankee Doodle Dandy was a biopic of George M. Cohan, composer of such tunes as — well, you can guess. Cagney plays Cohan, and we see him from his days as a child star on vaudeville with his parents, then starting his own act, getting married, and eventually his days writing patriotic tunes for the troops. It’s a terrific film. Cagney is really great in it. This is a film that doesn’t need a synopsis, because it’s a biopic. And it’s on AFI’s list of Top 100 movies of all time, so you kind of need to see it.

Curtiz does a good job directing it, but, for me, it wasn’t good enough to win. Why? Better efforts on this list, better choices historically, and Curtiz would win the year after this for Casablanca. So really, I don’t need to vote for him. Love the film, but he didn’t need to win here, and I see no reason to vote for him.

Farrow — Wake Island is a very tight film. It’s only 87 minutes, and is about the battle of Wake Island, which, if you don’t know, was a World War II battle where all the Americans ended up dead. And the film is all the soldiers fighting to the last man without any kind of help, and running out of ammunition. It’s a good film, because it looks real. It really works. And the unhappy (ish) ending is strange to see for a film released during the war.

As for the directorial effort — it’s really great. I watched this one twice, and the second time, I was really sold on the fact that Farrow gave an effort that was good enough to win. It really looked good, this film. The reason, though, that he didn’t win, was probably because of the unhappy ending, and because Miniver was winning Best Picture. I get it. But that doesn’t diminish the effort at all. This is a really strong film and a great effort by Farrow.

LeRoy — Random Harvest is a film with a great central conceit, but is a bit bogged down by melodrama. It’s really overwrought with melodrama. But, that aside, it still manages to be a solid film.

It’s about a dude in an asylum who is suffering from total amnesia. He fought in the war, was hurt, and woke up not remembering who he was. So he’s in the asylum, hoping to discover who he is and get out. Adn one day, they receive word that the war’s over (this is World War I). And while everyone at the hospital is celebrating, he manages to slip out and get loose. And as he goes, he meets Greer Garson, a showgirl, who takes a liking to him and helps him stay out of the asylum. And they escape to the country and get marrie ,and are very happy. And he goes into business writing, and they start a life together.

And one day, he’s in town, and he gets hit by a car. And as he gets hit by the car, all his memories of his original life come back, and he forgets about everything that happened since he was injured in the war. To him, he was in the trenches, there was an attack, and now he’s wondering what he’s doing in the middle of the street. And he knows who he is, so he just goes back home. And now that he’s home, he resumes his former life. He’s got this younger woman who he’s planning on marrying (and it’s clear by the interactions that he’s not really in love with her as he was Garson, but he doesn’t remember Garson), and he’s this wealthy heir or something.

And Garson, wondering what had happened to him, finds out about him and manages to work her way into becoming his personal secretary. And she works under him, and he has no idea who she is. And she hears about his plan to marry this other woman, and can’t say anything about it. But he doesn’t get married, because it’s clear to the other woman that he’s in love with someone else, even though he doesn’t know who. And eventually, he goes back to the town where he lived with Garson for business reasons. And as he’s there, all his memories come flooding back, and he and Garson reunite.

It’s actually a really strong film with a very interesting hook. Just, as I said, they lay the melodrama on thick. But if you can get around that, you’re left with what remains a really strong film.

LeRoy does an okay job directing it. Lot of soft focus, lots of musical swells and fog. It’s a studio film. It looks like an MGM melodrama (I don’t even have to look. I know it’s MGM) from the 40s. I wouldn’t vote for him, but I like that he was nominated. Him winning here would be too on-the-nose. Farrow and Wyler were much better, and much more topical choices.

Wood — Kings Row is an interesting film. It’s kind of like Our Town done again. A film about a small town, and the things that happen in it. However, unlike Our Town, this one is much more melodramatic. It’s — weird. I loved the first half of this film, but, midway through, it just lost all of its steam.

Basically, the main boy is attracted to the daughter of Claude Rains, a doctor. He keeps her in the house and doesn’t let her talk to other kids. He finds ways to talk to her, but Rains keeps thwarting them. The other kids don’t like her because her family is strange. The mother is kept locked inside the house, and no one can figure out why. And the boy ends up becoming a medical student who studies under Rains when he’s older. And he and the girl start a secret courtship without Rains knowing. And he decides to go to Europe to study and she begs him to take her with him, and they plan on getting married. Then, the next day, the kid finds out that Rains poisoned her and killed himself. He says it’s because the mother was crazy and that he didn’t want the kid to have to deal with that like he did. (The real reason is found out later, I believe, to be that he was having an incestuous relationship with her, and didn’t want anyone knowing.)

Here’s where the movie loses all its steam for me. We transfer over to Ronald Reagan, who plays the main kid’s best friend. He’s a rich kid with a trust fund. But he has it stolen from him and has to work for the railroad. And he ends up getting injured, which leads to the town’s sadistic doctor amputating both his legs (because he hates him and thinks he’s a bad guy, so he just does it. This is how doctors worked back in the day). So now he’s bitter and stays in bed all day.

Then the other guy comes back, and finds out why Reagan lost his legs. He never knew the true reason, just knew they were gone. And he tells Reagan why his legs are gone, and this gives him a renewed sense of strength, and gets him out of bed. And then everyone ends up happy. That’s the film. I liked the first half significantly more than the second half.

As for the direction — absolutely standard for the era. Nothing spectacular here, and clearly a #5 in the category. Wood was nominated for better films, and this is just one of those, “Nominated for Best Picture, and we liked it among the best ones” nominations. Typically, all the Best Picture nominees (and especially the ones most likely to win) get all the Best Director nominations. This looks like one of those deals. Either way, it shouldn’t have won. Farrow and Wyler were still the ones to beat, and Wood doesn’t do it with this effort.

Wyler — Mrs. Miniver is simply a film about a middle class family during the beginning of World War II. Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon have a family, and we spent the first hour just dealing with them. They have middle class problems, and go to parties, and their son courts a woman (Teresa Wright, who won an Oscar for the performance), and they draw you into this family. Then war breaks out. The son becomes a pilot, and everyone is terribly worried for him. And Garson has to take care of the house and deal with all this other stuff. And the two big moments in the film are first, after the local flower competition, a bombing occurs, which kills Teresa Wright. And then, the other instance is when a downed German pilot ends up in Garson’s house, and she ends up taking his gun away from him because he’s wounded, and calling in the authorities. And the film ends with everyone in a church, after the town was practically leveled with bombs, with a renewed sense of fight, and it basically is a big patriotic speech meant to get people through the war times.

It’s a good film. Not a Best Picture winner in any other year but this one, but a good film. I understand why it won. Wyler’s direction is really solid. I probably liked Farrow’s direction a bit better based solely on how dynamic it is, and how realistic the war scenes are. But Wyler does a really good job too, and I totally get why he won.

My Thoughts: To me, this is pretty cut and dry. Wood wasn’t good enough, LeRoy wasn’t either, Farrow was solid, but I didn’t like the film enough, and Curtiz would win the year after this. So, to me, this is just Wyler, go with the Best Picture winner and call it a day. If the category were stronger, maybe I’d throw a vote to someone else, but it’s not, so, I’m not. Wyler.

My Vote: Wyler

Should Have Won: Wyler

Is the result acceptable?: Yup. Picture/Director link up, Wyler is awesome — great decision. Don’t think about it too hard. This is simple.

Ones I suggest you see: Mrs. Miniver is a pretty great film. Solid, easy to watch, important historically, and a best Picture winner. All reasons to see it. Highly recommended.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is so fucking good. Cagney is terrific here, and this is about as classic as they come. If you see this film, my mother will thank you, my father will thank you, my sister will thank you, and I will thank you.

And you’ll get that reference. See it though, it’s amazing. (On AFI’s top 100 films, too.)

Random Harvest is a solid film. A bit melodramatic and a bit hammy (here’s to you, Ronald Colman), but a solid film and an interesting concept. The concept makes it work. Highly recommended, and definitely a classic.

Wake Island is a short film, but it’s really solid. It feels realistic. It’s one of the most realistic combat movies to come out of this era. Seriously. It’s really well done. Farrow, if he had a better career (since it’s hard for me to be 100% objective on the matter, as much as I’d like to, here in 2011), would have been my vote here. His effort is that good. It’s a solid film, too. And doesn’t have a happy ending. That’s surprising for a film made in the midst of a world war. Highly recommended. War film buffs who haven’t seen this are gonna be surprised by how good it is.

And Kings Row — it’s half a good film. But it falls apart midway through. Gets too melodramatic and sappy. But half of it is a good movie. Personally, I prefer Our Town instead. Still, it’s not horrible. Worth a look if you get a chance. After all — Best Picture nominee. That’s worth something.


5) Wood

4) LeRoy

3) Farrow

2) Curtiz

1) Wyler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.