The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1941-1942)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
John Ford, How Green Was My Valley
Alexander Hall, Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Howard Hawks, Sergeant York
Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
William Wyler, The Little Foxes
How Green Was My Valley is an incredible film. I watched it again recently. It’s definitely not a bad choice for Best Picture on its own. But that’s a discussion for another day.
It’s about the Morgan family, Welsh miners in a mining town. It’s very John Ford. Community, family, Irish identity, lot of scenes that don’t serve the overall story but set you firmly within the atmosphere and setting. Like the scene where the kid has been whipped by his teacher, so his brothers show up to school and whip the teacher. It’s just a great movie. It’s one of those movies that gets a bit of a bad rap because it beat Citizen Kane, but when you know the context of it, it’s not the movie’s fault. It really is a great film.
John Ford wins this category if not for Orson Welles. That is to say, he did actually win the category, but in this exercise. He’s clearly the second choice behind Welles. Problem is, this is just a great Ford film. Citizen Kane is possibly the greatest American film ever made.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is more about the script than the direction. But the direction is solid.
If you’ve seen Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty or Down to Earth with Chris Rock, then you know this story. A boxer is about to fight the champion, and gets into a plane crash weeks before the fight. His soul is taken to heaven, where he protests that it wasn’t his time to die. Turns out, it wasn’t. He was scheduled to live another 50 years. Problem is, his body has already been cremated. So they make him a deal — they’ll get him a new body that he can live in to make up for the mistake. However, until they find a body that fits, they put him in a temporary body, that of a millionaire whose wife and lover drowned in his bath tub. So he shows up as this millionaire and pretends to be him for a while. And in doing so, he falls in love with a woman who has issue with how the millionaire treated her. Only, the body was only meant to be temporary. And he has to struggle with falling in love and getting the body he really wanted and fulfilling his destiny to be champion.
It’s a great film. Really iconic story. All three of the films based on it are very good. This one has Claude Rains as Mr. Jordan.
The direction is solid. Nothing particularly fantastic. The special effects are nice, but ultimately it’s just a very solid entry that wouldn’t be the vote unless this was 1937.
Sergeant York is, as you can tell by the name, a very famous movie. It’s also a very dated movie. The kind of “rah rah” war movie that baby boomers loved, that now seems kind of ridiculous. Still great, though.
Gary Cooper is a backwoods yokel who likes to drink, fight and shoot. He’s very good with a gun, and mostly goes out drinking with his friends rather than going to church. He’s generally known as a fuck up and ne’er-do-well around town. Until one day he gets hit by lightning and decides, “I’m gonna give up drinking and get religious.” And then the war breaks out, and he has to go fight. Only fighting (and killing) goes against his beliefs. So he doesn’t want to fight and has to struggle with deciding whether or not to participate in the war. And ultimately his skill with a rifle ends up turning him into a national hero.
It’s a solid film. The only time Howard Hawks was nominated for Best Director. Which sucks, since he never really had a shot here. He was maybe second choice at best in 1941, and is third choice at best now. The direction is good. I don’t think I’d vote for it. It would fit as a winner if it also won Best Picture, though I think both choices would be pretty dated if that happened. The only silver lining would be an Oscar for Howard Hawks.
Citizen Kane. You may have heard of it.
This clearly wins the category, and I’m not gonna waste any more time talking about it.
The Little Foxes is another Bette Davis, William Wyler melodrama. She’s a southern belle who wants to be rich and independent in a place and time when that just wasn’t very likely for a woman. So we watch as her and her brothers just manipulate everyone and everything to get what they want.
It’s a pretty good film. Lot of familiar faces. Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Dan Duryea, Patricia Collinge. Lot of acting nominations, lot of nominations period.
The directing is solid. It’s Wyler, so you know he’s always solid. Here, he’s really only a fourth or fifth choice. Maybe you can bump him up to three if you really love the film, but at best four or five. No shot whatsoever.
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The Reconsideration: It’s Citizen Kane by a mile. Let’s not pretend it’s not. Ford is second, Hawks is third, and then the last two are whatever you want. Wyler is probably fourth based on pure effort, but I like how Hall used camera tricks to tell the story. So I put him fourth. Either way, I think this is one of those categories that most of us can agree on. I understand why Ford won, given the politics and the William Randolph Hearst of it all, but if we’re voting based on effort, there is no way anything other than Citizen Kane wins here.
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- Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
- John Ford, How Green Was My Valley
- Howard Hawks, Sergeant York
- Alexander Hall, Here Comes Mr. Jordan
- William Wyler, The Little Foxes
- Citizen Kane
- How Green Was My Valley
- Here Comes Mr. Jordan
- Sergeant York
- The Little Foxes
My Vote: Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
Recommendations: Citizen Kane is requisite viewing for everybody.
Sergeant York is a very famous film, historically. So you have to see it if you are into movies, but you also don’t have to like it. This is one of those movies I think a lot of people will go back and watch and not necessarily love just because of its values and the fact that it’s borderline propaganda. But it must be seen regardless.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan should be seen in some form. I think Heaven Can Wait is the best version, and this is second best. If you’ve only seen Down to Earth, you should see both other versions. This one is great because it’s a great 40s movie with a story you know that always works. And Claude Rains. No reason to not see this movie.
How Green Was My Valley is a must-see if you like movies. John Ford, Best Picture winner, and if you want to partake in the “Why didn’t Citizen Kane win” discussion, then you need to have seen this movie. It’s also really great, and has loads of famous people in it.
The Little Foxes is not an essential movie. If you like William Wyler, Bette Davis, melodramas or just like 40s movies, then it’s worth seeing. For the casual film fan, you don’t need to rush out and see it. If you’re into the Oscars, though, then you should. This feels like one of those movies that shouldn’t be forced onto people, but is better served being a movie you randomly catch on TCM one day and go, “Damn, this is good.”
The Last Word: It’s Citizen Kane. No one’s arguing this.
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Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy
John Farrow, Wake Island
Mervyn LeRoy, Random Harvest
Sam Wood, Kings Row
William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver
Curious that Sam Wood was not nominated for Pride of the Yankees. Just seems like the total package. I guess because Kings Row is a story with multiple narratives?
Yankee Doodle Dandy is such a great film. James fucking Cagney is the man.
It’s a biopic of George M. Cohan, who wrote “(insert title here)” and other famous American songs. “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Over There.” Cagney plays him from his vaudeville days forward, all the way to just before his death when he was given an award from FDR. Cagney is GREAT here. Classy biopic, great film. Hard not to love this one.
I actually really loved the direction here. It’s a tough category, so I don’t know if this ends up being the vote, but the direction is really solid. This would be a 1 or a 2 many other years. Here, it could go all the way down to 4, depending on what you feel.
Wake Island is a film I was shocked was so good. Not the film, but the direction. This is one of those war films pre-1950 that actually made me feel like it was a war film. I really loved the direction here, and it may be the best in the bunch.
It’s a film about the battle of (insert title here). A group of American troops are stranded on the island without any hope of help or supplies and have to hold off advancing forces. It’s one of those famous battles where they bravely fought to the last man despite no hope of survival.
It’s a really effective film. Only 80 minutes, but for some reason, it really made me feel like I was there. As much as a 40s film could. Very underrated entry in the category.
Random Harvest – man, I love this film. The effort is solid, and you can definitely make a case for this as a winner. There are four of these this year.
This is one of those movies that grows on me the more I see it. It’s about Ronald Colman, a soldier who was gassed during WWI and became so shell shocked he forgot who he was. So he lives in an asylum, hoping someone who knows him will come for him and tell him who he is. When the war ends, he manages to sneak out of the asylum and into a dance hall, where he meets Greer Garson, who takes a liking to him and helps keep him hidden. And the two fall in love and go off to start a life together. And one day, Colman gets hit by a car while picking up something from the store. And it makes him remember who he really is (and also makes him forget about Greer). So he returns home to his former life, only something keeps nagging at him. Something’s not quite right. Garson, meanwhile, tracks him down and goes to work for him, hoping one day he’ll remember who she is. And the movie builds toward a very satisfying ending. I’ll leave it at that.
I adore this movie. This is just a perfect romance and a perfect film. It’s starting to become my favorite from the entire year the more time passes. I think the direction is great and is completely worth a vote.
Kings Row is a schizophrenic film. The first half, I thought, was really good. And then something happens at the midway point and it just falls apart. Very strange.
The first half of the movie focuses on five kids in the town of (insert title here). There’s our main character, who lives with his grandmother. His best friend, a rich orphan. There’s the daughter of the town doctor, who many think is weird and whose father, the town doctor (Claude Rains) keeps a close eye on her. Then there’s the daughter of the town’s sadistic physician (a great Charles Coburn), and the tomboy.
And we follow these plotlines, as son crazy shit happens. I don’t want to get into it. There’s a pretty shocking revelation at the midway point that completely turns the film on its head and shifts the narrative. And then the film picks up as the kids are now grown. The main character is Robert Cummings and the rich orphan is Ronald Reagan. And we mostly focus on them. But we see what happens to all the kids over time. Though Reagan is undoubtedly the star of the last half of the movie.
It’s a good movie, overall, but I feel it loses steam after the halfway point. The direction is fine, but it’s a #4 at best, and no one can really say it’s worth the vote. I feel like Wood being nominated for Pride of the Yankees would have led for a much more interesting discussion.
Mrs. Miniver is a big, classy war film. Your clear Best Picture winner during a time when America was all about the home front.
It’s a film about how World War II affects a pretty average (I guess I should put average in quotes) middle class British family. The first half of the movie is mostly scenes of the family interacting with the threat of war coming closer and closer. The son falls in love with a girl, and also wants to enlist, and the rest of the family goes from “The war needn’t affect us” to “We need to do our part to help in the effort.” It’s a very prevalent theme during the war years. And it’s a really engaging film. Because it’s almost as if John Ford directed it. There are a lot of moments that feel like vignettes. When a German pilot crashes in the town and ends up coming into their house, and Greer Garson runs into him. Or when they have the rose contest. There’s a lot of great things in this movie. It makes sense that they went for it.
As for the effort — it’s good. But there’s not a whole lot of combat here, which I think people might forget when thinking about it as a winner. It’s William Wyler, so it’s solid, but there’s not a whole lot here to make it a slam dunk choice over most of the other options. Very curious to see how I end up voting here.
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The Reconsideration: This is a tough one. The only one I throw out for a vote is Kings Row. After that – you can make a case for all of them, effort-wise. It comes down to how I’m feeling that day. Today — it’s tough.
Right now, I have Yankee Doodle Dandy fourth. It’s probably third for me, but today, it’s feeling like a fourth choice. And then Mrs. Miniver is probably next up. I feel like I want to consider it just because it won and because it feels like a solid, classy choice. But honestly, I don’t love it as much as the other three, and I think the effort is really just solid but not “must vote for.” It looks fine as a winner, but isn’t for me for a vote.
So that leaves Wake Island and Random Harvest. And since I really haven’t seen Wake Island in four years, and really, really, really love Random Harvest, I think I’m taking Mervyn LeRoy.
Though, you know — Miniver is really well-shot. But screw it. I do love Random Harvest and I’m sticking with that. This feels like four #2s with no solid #1. So you can go anyway you want with it. And just imagine what it would have been if The Pride of the Yankees were the fifth option.
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- Mervyn LeRoy, Random Harvest
- John Farrow, Wake Island
- William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver
- Michael Curtiz, Yankee Doodle Dandy
- Sam Wood, Kings Row
- Random Harvest
- Yankee Doodle Dandy
- Mrs. Miniver
- Wake Island
- Kings Row
My Vote: Mervyn LeRoy, Random Harvest
Recommendations: See them all.
Mrs. Miniver is a big film for the war years, and it won Best Picture. Should be seen by people really into film and/or the Oscars.
Standard level film buffs need to see Random Harvest and Yankee Doodle Dandy. They are essential movies.
Wake Island is a great war movie and is worth seeing if you love old movies and love war movies and/or history. It’s only 80 minutes. It’s not that much of an effort. See it.
And King’s Row is worth it because it’s a really interesting film, structure-wise. I’m curious how people respond to it. Not essential, and you can get by without it, but it’s got a lot of famous people in it. It features probably Ronald Reagan’s best performance. Charles Coburn plays a really cruel and terrifying character, which he rarely did. Claude Rains is also in it, which always is worth seeing. There are a lot of reasons to check this one out.
The Last Word: You can honestly take LeRoy, Wyler, Farrow or Curtiz here. I have a sneaking suspicion that Wake Island isn’t as solid a choice as I thought originally. But I’ve yet to confirm that by rewatching the film. I think that it really comes down to personal preference between Wyler, Curtiz and LeRoy. I think that’s how most people would go with this. And Wyler makes the most sense overall as a choice, but my personal preference is LeRoy. But I couldn’t fault anyone for going almost any way with this category. It’s really solid.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)