The Oscar Quest: Best Actor – 1942

1942 is a year that — kind of like a lesser 1946, no one could really do anything about. World War II was in full swing, and the Academy was obviously gonna go with a film that pushed forward the war effort. That, mixed with the fact that it was a relatively weak set of Best Picture nominees — it makes sense.

Mrs. Miniver wins Best Picture, Best Actress for Greer Garson, Best Supporting Actress for Teresa Wright (talked about here), and Best Director for William Wyler (talked about here). All were actually great decisions.

The non-Miniver decisions for the year were Van Heflin as Best Supporting Actor for Johnny Eager, which might have been the weakest Best Supporting Actor category of all time, and this category.

This category is actually a great one, because it was a perfect opportunity to award James Cagney. If Gary Cooper didn’t win this category the year before this, chances are Cagney wouldn’t have won here. But Cooper did win, so Cagney was able to get his well-deserved Oscar. And that’s good.


And the nominees were…

James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy

Gary Cooper, The Pride of the Yankees

Ronald Colman, Random Harvest

Walter Pidgeon, Mrs. Miniver

Monty Woolley, The Pied Piper

Cagney — Yankee Doodle Dandy is a great film. Don’t believe me? Ask AFI. It’s on their list of Top 100 movies.

The film is a biopic of George M. Cohan, who wrote — well, you can figure it out.

It’s a great performance by Cagney, who gets to show his singing and dancing side, which, at the time, was a huge departure from the typical gangsters he was known for playing. It’s the kind of performance where — it’s clearly great, but it’s one where, if all things were equal, I wouldn’t vote for it. But, all things aren’t equal, so I can vote for him with a totally clear conscience. I’ll explain in a second. Right now, in fact

Cooper — The Pride of the Yankees, in my mind, is the film for which Gary Cooper should have won his firs Academy Award. I don’t necessarily think he should have won the second (Kirk Douglas should have won that year), but, in terms of the first one, I think he should have won for this over Sergeant York.

This is a biopic of Lou Gehrig, from his younger days, through his days backing up Wally Pip, through his Iron Man days, all the way to his sudden retirement due to getting what became known as his disease. It’s quite a beautiful film. Teresa Wright is also excellent as his wife.

I personally think Cooper gave the best performance here. But since he won the year before this, I can easily vote for Cagney, whose performance I consider just as good as Cooper’s. So everything actually works out.

Colman — Random Harvest is another classic film. It’s full-stop melodrama, but in the best sense.

The fim is about Colman, as a World War I veteran who is in a hospital because he can’t remember his name or who he is. And one day (when the war ends), he sneaks out of the hospital while everyone is celebrating. And as he’s out, he meets Greer Garson, a cabaret singer, who helps hide him from the orderlies who are out looking for him. And they spend time together and fall in love. And he runs off with her and gets married, not knowing who he is, but knowing he’s in love. And he starts a life with her, becomes an author and writes a book. And one day, while in town, he’s hit by a car, and suddenly remembers everything. All his memories come flooding back, and he wakes up, having last remembered being in the trenches and succumbing to a mustard gas attack. And he completely forgets everything that happened with Garson.

So what happens is, he goes back home to his family, who had presumed him dead. And he goes back to his old life, which, as we see, is dreadfully boring. And he starts seeing (in that way rich people do. Calling on one another, having chats in the midst of the entire family, and then going, “Sure, we’ll get engaged”) the stepdaughter of one of his siblings (Susan Peters, Oscar-nominated for the role). And he goes back to being the businessman that he was. And Garson, who sees his picture in the paper, comes and manages to get a job as his secretary, hoping her presence will jog his memory and make him remember everything. And he goes on and gets engaged to the other girl, and Garson, distraught, goes back to the house she and Colman were going to live in together.

But what happens is, the woman Colman is engaged to, sees that he’s in love with someone else. And he knows he’s in love with someone else, but he can’t understand why or who. But he breaks off the engagement because of it. And one day, he’s called to the town where Garson lives on some business (quite coincidentally), and as he’s walking around the town, all the memories start coming back to him, and he rushes to the house and meets Garson, who is waiting for him.

It’s quite a beautiful film. Very melodramatic, but great.

Colman is good here, but I never much liked him as an actor. That is to say, he was good at what he did, but I never found him particularly interesting. He seemed to come from the early days of theater acting and emoting, rather than the film actors, or the ones who came from Vaudeville. I always found those people more interesting. But Colman is fine, and I’d give him some consideration for a vote, but, knowing he’d win in 1947 and seeing how good Cagney and Cooper were — I wouldn’t put him higher than third, at best, here.

Pidgeon — What’s so interesting to me about Walter Pidgeon is, I like him as an actor, and I quite enjoy some of his performances, but, how the man got nominated for two Oscars is beyond me. I’m assuming it’s because Greer Garson was his costar in all these films, plus they were really high on the prestige scale, so it seems like one of those things where he just came along for the ride.

Mrs. Miniver, as we all should know (it won Best Picture, after all) is about a middle-class family in Britain during World War II. We spend the first hour just seeing them and their problems. Then, the war starts, and we see them having to deal with the war and the blitz. It’s quite a good film. Not quite a Best Picture, I feel, but understandable as a choice, given its message and the fact that it was released during the high point of the war.

Pidgeon is the patriarch of the family, and he does a fine job and all. Thing is, though, it just feels like he’s only there in the film. You know? One of those performances where — he just feels like part of the ensemble, and nothing he did really stood out as being nomination-worthy. I don’t mind him being here, it’s just — I don’t see it. So I’m not voting for him. In fact, I think he’s a #5. I really don’t see how anyone could vote for him in this category, regardless of what they think of his performance.

Woolley — The Pied Piper is an interesting movie. It has relatively hard to find, and is a relatively simple film. So I didn’t expect much. But when I saw it — I was very surprised at how good it was. It feels like a hidden gem of the 40s.

Monty Woolley is an Englishman on vacation in France. And in case you didn’t know, Woolley’s screen persona was one of a crabby old man who eventually gets warmed up to those around him. And while there, he starts seeing what German occupation is doing to the country. And his position is — it’s none of his business, and he wants to stay out of it. But what happens is, he finds himself being the chaperone for two children, whose parents want to send them to safety. And he starts taking them (quite unhappy about it), but eventually the group starts to grow, and eventually he finds himself taking this giant group of kids to safety.

It’s really good. It’s really underrated. Woolley does a really good job here. His performance is one of those where — I consider him the underdog nominee. The guy who, while you know he won’t win, he’s the sentimental favorite. Everyone would like to see him win, but everyone knows it won’t happen. (Plus, his best shot was in Supporting Actor 1944.) So, I loved his performance, even though Cagney is the clear winner here.

My Thoughts: It’s gotta be Cagney. It would be Cooper if he didn’t win the year before this, but he won, so Cagney gets the vote. (Woolley is a sentimental second choice.)

My Vote: Cagney

Should Have Won: Cagney (and also Cooper)

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. Cagney is amazing here, and he definitely deserved an Oscar. Great choice.

Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen The Pride of the Yankees, you’re dead to me.

You should probably see Random Harvest. It’s close to essential, and it’s a really great film. Real film fans will see this one.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is probably also an essential film. It’s amazing, and it’s on AFI’s Top 100 movies list. That means you should see it.

Mrs. Miniver is a great film and a Best Picture winner. What more do you need?

The Pied Piper is actually a nice little hidden gem of a film. Really fantastic, and criminally underseen. Highly recommend this one. Check it out. You’ll enjoy it.


5) Pidgeon

4) Colman

3) Woolley

2) Cooper

1) Cagney

One response

  1. Michael

    I’m somewhat disappointed that they didn’t nominate Tim Holt this year for The Magnificent Ambersons in place of Pidgeon or Colman. What are your thoughts on that?

    January 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm

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