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The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1942

 Things changed this year. Now America is in the war. So you have to shift your thinking to taking that into account. The war was a huge deal. Patriotism (and to an extent propaganda) was a big thing. And that’s ultimately what helps this year make sense.

Mrs. Miniver is a good film, but more importantly — it’s a good war film. It promotes the values of the family sticking together during war time and doing their part to help out their country, despite hardships that come of it. A film like this makes sense for 1942. It also won Best Director for William Wyler (talked about here), Best Actress for Greer Garson (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actress for Teresa Wright (talked about here). All were fine decisions, ranging from simply okay to really great. Best Actor was James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy (talked about here), which was an amazing decision. And Best Supporting Actor was Van Heflin for Johnny Eager (talked about here), which was a pretty insignificant decision in one of the weakest Best Supporting Actor categories of all time.

So, overall, while I’m sure we all prefer a different film for Best Picture, 1942 is a solid year. There’s really not much else to say. There’s a war on, Fink.

BEST PICTURE – 1942

And the nominees were…

49th Parallel (GFD, Columbia)

Kings Row (Warner Bros.)

The Magnificent Ambersons (Mercury, RKO Radio)

Mrs. Miniver (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The Pied Piper (20th Century Fox)

The Pride of the Yankees (Goldwyn, RKO Radio)

Random Harvest (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The Talk of the Town (Columbia)

Wake Island (Paramount)

Yankee Doodle Dandy (Warner Bros.)

49th Parallel — This is a real interesting film. A lot of people wouldn’t immediately think of this as a Powell and Pressburger film. Well, technically it’s a Powell film, but Pressburger co-wrote it. So it’s sort of both of them.

The film is about a German U-Boat being sunk in Canada, and the men on board end up wandering the countryside. They encounter a bunch of people, killing many of them. Then they end up at this commune of sorts where people live and farm together. And they stay there for a while, but then the mounties close in and they get captured. It’s hard to explain, plot-wise. It doesn’t sound interesting when you explain it, but it’s a great film. It really is. It’s a unique angle, an interesting story — really good film. However — not gonna win. I just like other films better here. That’s simply what it comes down to for me. So I guess “not gonna vote for it” is more appropriate. Either way, good film, no vote.

Kings Row — I look at this film as half a good film. I was with this film for the first hour, and then they lost me.

The film begins with two boys, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan. Cummings is the average, all-American kid who lives with his grandmother and Reagan is a wealthy orphan. Then there are three more women. One is the daughter of a doctor (Claude Rains), the other is a tomboy (Ann Sheridan), and the third is the daughter of the town physician (Charles Coburn) who is quite evil and sadistic. It’s actually kind of weird to see Coburn playing legit evil. He’s the kind of doctor who — well, we’ll get to that later. But Cummings has a crush on Rains’s daughter, who is ostracized by the other kids. Rains keeps her mother locked in the house and she is taken out of school one day and also disappears for a few years.

Reagan and Coburn’s daughter start seeing one another and want to get married. But Coburn refuses to let him marry her. So they start seeing each other secretly. Meanwhile, Cummings starts studying under Rains to become a doctor. (He also starts seeing Rains’s daughter in private.) And when his grandmother dies, he goes of to med school in Europe. And before he goes, he tells Rains’s daughter he wants to marry her. And she says no, but then begs him to take her with him. Then she runs back home. And the next day, we find out that Rains killed his daughter and then shot himself. The film says that he did it because her mother was insane and the daughter was showing signs of it, and he did it so the boy doesn’t ruin his life by marrying her, but I feel like the real reason (whether implied by the film or not) was that Rains was actually sleeping with his daughter and raping her. I don’t remember. My brain is telling me that’s what was going on.

Anyway, once they kill the daughter, I immediately lost interest in the film. That relationship was the most interesting part for me. But then, Cummings goes to med school and comes back a doctor. But while he’s there, Reagan gets all his inheritance stolen and then starts working for the rail station and gets crushed by a boxcar. And then Coburn, because he hates Reagan, amputates his legs even though he absolutely didn’t need to do that. So now Reagan doesn’t have the use of his legs, and gets really bitter. And he was seeing Ann Sheridan, so now he marries her, but he doesn’t love her. And he stays in bed, refusing to even try to rehabilitate himself as best he can. But then Cummings comes back to the town and takes over as the town doctor (since Coburn has died by this point). And no one had told Reagan that Coburn amputated his legs because he wanted to punish him, because they think it’ll ruin whatever will to live he has left. But then Cummings tells Reagan, and that actually gives him a reason to live.

So, you can see — I really only like one half of this movie. Once they kill the daughter, I’m gone. It just gets aimless, there’s really nothing of interest, it gets really melodramatic — I only like the first half of this. So the first half is great, the second isn’t, and it’s pretty clear I can’t for a movie that’s only half-good.

The Magnificent Ambersons — This film is perhaps the finest example of what can happen when a studio disagrees with a filmmaker. They butchered this film. Which is to say — they changed it completely from what it was originally. It’s hard to know whether that was a good thing or bad thing, since the final product is very good (plus Robert Wise, who edited the film, said the original version was a mess and that this version is better. So it’s hard to know the truth).

The film is about the fall of a family. The Ambersons are an old money family. And we follow one of their members (Tim Holt) from his days at college onward. And the main conflict in the film is between the Ambersons and Joseph Cotten, who represents new money. He’s an automobile manufacturer. And Holt meets Cotten’s daughter (Anne Baxter), and falls for her. He also finds out that Cotten and his mother used to see one another, and that she’d always loved him, even while married to his father. And after Holt’s father dies, Cotten asks Holt’s mother to marry him. Holt tells his mother not to marry him, and since she loves her son more than she loves Cotten, she doesn’t do it. And Holt takes his mother to Europe to get her away from Cotten (he also leaves Baxter during this time as well). Then they come back because she is dying, and Holt refuses to let Cotten see her on her deathbed. And by this point, Holt has no money (since the family lost it all), and loses Baxter (since he’s shown himself to be a supreme asshole over all this time), and then goes to work in a factory, now living in a world he rebuffed earlier in a film.

It’s a really strong film. It feels a bit compromised, but on the whole, it’s still a near-masterpiece. It shouldn’t have won here for a few reasons. One, it doesn’t feel quite there, and two — if Citizen Kane didn’t win, this shouldn’t win. So I wouldn’t vote for this, though people would be well within their right mind to do so. I just can’t.

Mrs. Miniver — This is a film about a family.

We begin by seeing the Minivers in their everyday life. They’re middle-class, happy, have three kids — picture perfect life. Their son comes home from college and meets Teresa Wright and falls in love with her. And their courtship takes up the early part of the film. They marry, but soon World War II breaks out. The son goes and enlists in the Air Force. Then there’s an incident where a German pilot crashes in the neighborhood and ends up in the Miniver house. And she manages to take his gun away and call the police. Then there’s this annual flower competition that happens. And after the competition, there’s a bombing, and Wright dies. Then everyone assembles in the church and everyone affirms their duties to help out in the war.

It’sa good film. It’s really solid. To me, it was a bit on the nose to win, but I can understand why it would. Its shows middle-class people supporting the war. It’s important in a time of war. I totally get it. I just wouldn’t vote for it. I like at least three or four films better for a vote.

The Pied Piper — This is a great little hidden gem.

Monty Woolley is an Englishman on vacation in France. And if you know Monty Woolley, you know he had a definite screen persona. You see it here and in Since You Went Away. He’s the grumpy older dude who eventually warms up to people. And what happens is, he eventually is roped into taking two children along with him, so they can avoid being captured by the Nazis. And he doesn’t want to, but he eventually relents and agrees. And, through a series of events, he somehow winds up with an entire group of children, all of whom he’s trying to get to safety.

It’s a great film. It really is. Shouldn’t have won here, but it’s really great. It’s the kind of film that’s more of a mid-level film most years. In a year of five, it would probably be, in a relatively strong year, a #4. One of those films you like but would never vote for. That’s what this is.

The Pride of the Yankees — This film is a biopic of Lou Gehrig. You don’t need any more information than that, and, it’s perfect. This is a real classic, and everyone needs to see it.

Random Harvest — This is a perfect film. It’s a melodrama, but forget that. The story is amazing.

Ronald Colman is an amnesiac in a military hospital who was in World War II and succumbed to mustard gas. And now he doesn’t know who he is. So he’s in the hospital. One day (V-E Day), he manages to sneak away (or rather, just wander off, since everyone is celebrating), and he meets up with Greer Garson, a showgirl/singer, and they start talking, and like one another. And they go away together and fall in love and get married. And he writes a book, and they buy a house in a small town, and they start living happily ever after. Then, one day, he’s in town, and he gets hit by a car, and suddenly all his memories come flooding back to him. He remembers who he is, wonders why he’s in this town, and goes back home. And now suddenly he’s alive again. Meanwhile Garson is back in their house, having expected him to come home and then he just didn’t. So now Colman is back to his original life, and he gets engaged to another woman, but he doesn’t really love her and he can’t understand why. And then Garson finds out who he is and comes back to him and becomes his secretary, hoping her constant presence will jar his memory. And it doesn’t work. So finally she leaves and goes back home. And then one day, by chance, he’s in his old town, and as he walks through it, all his memories of Garson come flooding back and he rushes to the house and back to her.

It’s a great movie. It really is. This is a movie that, in all honesty, was good enough to win here. I understand why it didn’t, and feel like it probably would have been a bit of a weak winner, but still, it definitely was good enough to win.

Talk of the Town — I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a comedy or drama. It’s a very difficult film to gauge, tonally. There’s comedy, romance and drama here. I can’t tell which it wants to be.

Cary Grant is a political activist accused of burning down a mill (which killed the foreman, who was inside). He escapes from jail and ends up in a house owned by Jean Arthur, a former schoolmate of his. He plans on hiding there. However, she’s rented the house for the summer to Ronald Colman, a professor writing a book. And then Grant and Colman meet one another and start talking and becoming friendly. And they both also start both trying to get with Arthur. And what eventually happens is, Colman decides to investigate the case, and ends up discovering that the foreman, who was thought to be dead, is actually alive. And the guy ends up coming back and confessing his guilt and Grant is exonerated. And of course, he gets the girl.

It’s a good film and an interesting film, though I really can’t tell what the tone of this is. That’s what throws me off. The tone just feels off. Though it is a good movie. I can’t vote for it though. It just doesn’t feel like a film I can vote for.

Wake Island — This film is about the battle of Wake Island. An American military station on the island is overrun by the Japanese post-Pearl Harbor. And the men are stuck there and can’t get away and are pretty much killed to the last man. It’s a very simple film, structurally.

The great thing about this film is that the battle scenes are so well-shot. They feel very realistic for a war film of this era. It’s actually a really terrific film. It shouldn’t have won, but I wanted to point out how strong these battle scenes are. I’ve seen a lot of war movies. This definitely stands out from the rest from this era.

Yankee Doodle Dandy — This is a biopic of George M. Cohan, who wrote the titular song. It’s also an American classic. It’s terrific. I can’t really say more about it without a moment by moment synopsis. This is one of James Cagney’s finest hours on film, if not his finest. He’s incredible here. Plus the film is on that AFI list of top 100 films. So, you should see it.

My Thoughts: This is a tough one to call. Narrowing it down quickly — the only films I’d vote for are Ambersons, Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Mrs. Miniver. Personally, my favorite films are Pride of the Yankees and Yankee Doodle Dandy, so it’s one of them. I think it’s Pride of the Yankees. I love it too much. That’s my vote.

My Vote: The Pride of the Yankees

Should Have Won: I guess either The Pride of the Yankees, Mrs. Miniver or Yankee Doodle Dandy

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Very acceptable. Not amazing, but it definitely makes sense, considering these were the war years. So at the very least, this is acceptable.

Ones I suggest you see: You need to see The Pride of the Yankees, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Magnificent Ambersons, or else we’re no friends, you don’t really love movies, and — I can’t think of a third one for Ambersons. But you need to see it simply to see the best example of the consequences of disputes between a director and a studio.

You also really should see Random Harvest. It’s incredible. I deem it essential.

Mrs. Miniver is a terrific movie, and it won, so you should probably just see it.

49th Parallel is a really great film, and is by Powell and Pressburger. So for the real film fan, that makes it essential.

Wake Island is another terrific film. The battle scenes here are really well done. They look more realistic than many war films made twenty years after it. And it’s short too. I highly recommend this one.

The Pied Piper is also pretty terrific. A nice hidden gem of a film. Highly recommended.

The Talk of the Town is really solid. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Also recommended.

Kings Row — I really liked the first half, but not so much the second half. But the second half features a lot of Ronald Reagan, so that might make up for it. Still, it’s worth a watch.

Rankings:

10) Kings Row

9) The Talk of the Town

8) The Pied Piper

7) Wake Island

6) 49th Parallel

5) Mrs. Miniver

4) Random Harvest

3) The Magnificent Ambersons

2) Yankee Doodle Dandy

1) The Pride of the Yankees

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