The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actor – 1942
I call 1942 an “of course” year. Because of course a film like Mrs. Miniver would win Best Picture in a year like this. Middle of the war — film about a family dealing with war — of course it would win.
William Wyler won Best Director for the film (talked about here), Greer Garson won Best Actress for it (talked about here), and Teresa Wright won Best Supporting Actress for it (talked about here). And James Cagney won Best Actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy (talked about here). All decisions ranging from good to great.
But this category — holy shit is it bad. One of the single weakest — if not the weakest — Best Supporting Actor categories of all time. It’s really, really awful. And it’s so bad, that — honestly it didn’t matter who won. It’s that bad. I skip over this one constantly. It’s like that one family member everyone forgets to invite to stuff. You know — what’s his name. Who sucks.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – 1942
And the nominees were…
William Bendix, Wake Island
Van Heflin, Johnny Eager
Walter Huston, Yankee Doodle Dandy
Frank Morgan, Tortilla Flat
Henry Travers, Mrs. Miniver
Bendix — Wake Island is a terrific film. The war scenes are really amazing for 1942.
It’s about an American garrison on Wake Island following Pearl Harbor. The Japanese come and attack it and the Americans, undermanned and short on ammunition, are overrun. They fight to the last man and all are killed. It’s surprisingly downbeat for a film made during the war, but they manage to turn the ending into a positive.
Bendix plays one of the men, and it makes sense that he was singled out for a nomination. It’s one of those nominations that’s in support of the film, but Bendix is a man with a unique personality and screen presence. A character actors if there ever was one. He’s a dude that was bound to get one of these one day. And in a category like this, why couldn’t he win? He’ll definitely be under consideration for me.
Heflin — Johnny Eager is definitely one of the weaker films on this list. Robert Taylor is a gangster and Lana Turner is a D.A.’s daughter who is in love with him. And it’s one of those films where he has to decide between crime and love, and of course one way will end happily and the other won’t.
Van Heflin (aka the father in Shane) plays Robert Taylor’s drunk friend. He’s terribly educated, and drinks because he’s too smart, in a way. And he used to be a lawyer, I believe, and now just drinks himself away. And Taylor comes and tries to help him, but mostly just allows him to destroy himself, which he does because he says Taylor is basically doing the same, so what’s the difference in method? And he helps out Taylor on some of his crimes, mostly out of loyalty, but basically he’s just drunk and morbid for the whole film.
I don’t really see what was so good about this performance to win. I feel like every other nominee (or almost every other nominee) would have been a better decision.
Huston — Yankee Doodle Dandy is a biopic of George M. Cohan, who wrote the titular song. Cagney plays Cohan, and is amazing in it and greatly deserved his Oscar. It’s also a really famous film, on AFI’s Top 100, and is a film you probably should see.
Walter Huston plays Cohan’s father, and he’s great in the role as he always is. Thing is — he’s not really on screen all that much. He gets the first 20 minutes and then disappears for the rest of the film outside of a line here or there until he comes back to die. I mean, he has a scene or two before that, but that’s essentially what it is. Thing is, though, he does play the wise father role, and plays it well, so that’s nice. And he’s Walter Huston, and should have won Best Actor for Dodsworth and was amazing in The Devil and Daniel Webster (and probably would have won this very same category the year before this if they didn’t push him lead). That automatically puts him top two in this weak ass category, no matter how good the performance was.
Morgan — Tortilla Flat is a film that’s not really about anything, it seems. It’s based on a Steinbeck novel. What I got out of it is that it’s about a bunch of Mexican men who are out of work and living together. And they hang out and drink and stuff, and one of them, who has some money, basically supports the rest. It’s not a very good film.
Frank Morgan (aka Professor Marvel, aka the Great and Powerful Oz) plays The Pirate, a man who shows up to the men’s house with a nice amount of gold in a bag, which he’s going to use to buy a gold candlestick for his dead dog. And the men try to steal it, but eventually give it back to him when they realize how much he loved that dog. It’s actually a very poignant performance. It’s definitely the most poignant in the category, next to maybe Travers. Plus, Morgan was great in Wizard of Oz, The Affairs of Cellini and would be great the year after this in The Human Comedy, and was a great character actor. This makes him also a finalist in this terrible category.
Travers — Mrs. Miniver is the Best Picture winner, about a middle class family during World War II and the Blitz of England. I’ve talked about it in every single other category, so I’ll spare the synopsis and only talk about Travers
Henry Travers plays a local florist who is trying to win the local rose competition, which has been won every year by Dame May Whitty and her family (who coincidentally run the competition). And he breeds this beautiful rose (which he calls the Miniver Rose, because that’s how movies work), and enters it into the competition. And Whitty, who is basically a huge bitch for the better part of the film, has a talk with Greer Garson (since her granddaughter, or is it niece, is engaged to Garson’s son), where she says maybe the reason no one really likes her is because she treats herself as better than everyone else. So at the rose competition, she awards first prize to Travers. It’s a very poignant moment. Then after the competition, a bombing happens, and we later find out that he died during it. It’s a very effective performance by him, since you basically feel for him, then find out he died, and you remember that he had just experienced the happiest moment of his life just before it.
It’s the kind of performance where, had you just watched the film, you’d think, “Oh man, I should vote for him.” And it might be strengthened when you saw this category. But the performance isn’t really worth more than just a nomination. It’s nice and all, but in a category like this, you need to vote for the actor, since none of the performances are really that great. And honestly, I’d vote for Huston or Morgan before I voted for him. So, I like the nomination, but I can’t vote for him.
My Thoughts: There’s no stand-out performance here, so I have to resort to tiebreakers. Based on the actors themselves (this being a category for career achievement Oscars), the one who most deserved a statue was Walter Huston. But of his four nominations, this is probably the weakest performance. Not that he’s bad in the film, it’s just — he’s not really in it all that much, and he got an Oscar six years after this for a better role. So I kind of shy away from voting for him unless I have to.
After that, the next most deserving of a statue is Frank Morgan. He was great in The Affairs of Cellini, and of course, was the Great and Powerful Oz (and Professor Marvel), and also had a great role in The Human Comedy the year after this. Since there’s really no one to vote for, and he was very poignant here and is an all around great supporting actor, I feel it’s early enough in this category where I could vote for him and still see at as a legitimacy thing, giving it to the solid supporting actors of the day to bolster the reputation of the category. So, I vote for him. Why not? (I’m cheating a bit, naturally, knowing that Huston would win one later on. But if I know, why not use it?)
My Vote: Morgan
Should Have Won: Can anyone really have a preference here?
Is the result acceptable?: I — guess? This is about as dead a category as I’ve ever seen one. No single performance really stands out, and based on the actors involved, the only one who really should have had an Oscar here is Walter Huston, who got one six years after this for a performance that’s better than this one. I still say, if there’s no choice, vote the man who deserves it most for being solid all the time. And that man here is Frank Morgan. So I say he should have won. It’s a weird area on this one. In a way it’s acceptable because it doesn’t matter who won, and also in a way it’s not acceptable because there was, actually a better decision to be made. So it’s weird. It’s kind of both. It depends how deep you want to look into it.
Performances I suggest you see: Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s on AFI’s Top 100 films of all time list. That means you should probably see it.
Mrs. Miniver is a great film and a Best Picture winner. You should probably see it. I can’t see a reason not to, all those Oscars.
Wake Island — great film. Really great film. Highly, highly recommended. One of the most realistic war films from the period. Insanely so. The direction is terrific.
Tortilla Flat — not a very good film. But Morgan’s good in it. So that’s something.
Johnny Eager — meh. Generic. Take it or leave it. Watchable though. Definitely watchable.