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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 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.

1941

Walter Brennan, Sergeant York

Charles Coburn, The Devil and Miss Jones

Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley

James Gleason, Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Sydney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon

Analysis:

Sergeant York is one of those “classics.” When you think of classical Hollywood, this is one of those movies that seems to exemplify that. It’s also a movie that’s very dated. Very much reminiscent of bygone values and would be something viewers today might not like because of that. But that doesn’t change its status as a classic.

Alvin York is a backwoods country bumpkin who drinks too much and shirks responsibility. Then one day he’s hit by lightning and turns over a new leaf. He gets religion. But then war comes, and he’s drafted. And he has to weigh his duty to his country versus his religious beliefs. And once he does that, he becomes a war hero. That’s the film. It’s great, but is also all of those things I said up there.

Walter Brennan plays the pastor of the town. He’s the voice of reason who comes in and gives good, friendly advice when York needs it. And we love him because he’s Walter Brennan. There’s not a whole lot to the performance, but he’s solid as always. Not a performance you vote for, but a welcome addition to the category.

The Devil and Miss Jones is not what it sounds like. It’s a comedy, and has nothing to do with the devil.

Charles Coburn, who had a history of being a lead and being nominated in supporting, plays the owner of a department store whose workers are gonna go on strike. He wants to figure out which ones are trying to unionize and get them fired. So he goes undercover in his own store. And of course he befriends them and softens and learns the plight of the workers, even though he’s been rich all his life. He finds romance, becomes a better person, the whole deal. It’s a good film.

Coburn is awesome in the film, but he’s the lead. He’s unabashedly the lead. And it’s one of those performances he did a bunch in the early 40s. He was basically the Rodney Dangerfield of the 40s. Playing the old rich dude who gets into comic situations with younger people. I can’t vote for him because he’s the lead, even though the performance is quite terrific.

How Green Was My Valley is John Ford. Great John Ford. Terrific film with a great cast. The only reason people dislike it, historically, is because it beat Citizen Kane, which is more about politics than the quality of the film.

It’s about a Welsh mining family in a small town. And we follow them over the years. It’s very much John Ford, about little vignettes and smaller scenes than an overarching story. It brings you into a community and a family and their lives become the story.

Donald Crisp plays the patriarch of the family. It’s the stern, but loving father role that you’ve seen all throughout cinema. It’s an archetypical role, but he plays it really, really well. It’s an easy winner in the category, objectively speaking. Between two comic roles, one of which is a lead, a solid performance by someone who has three wins and a performance in a film that the Academy just does not go for in terms of wins, his is the performance that fits most with what they go for, and I get the win completely. The only question is whether or not I take him over Greenstreet, since, Greenstreet is awesome.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a film anyone whose been reading this site will know about by now.

Boxer, set to face the champ, dies in a freak accident. Only he wasn’t supposed to die and it was a clerical error. So now Heaven has to get him a body, stat. So they temporarily put him in the body of a millionaire until they can find him a permanent body. And while he finds a way to try to get his title shot back, he finds love and all this other stuff. Great movie. They remade it as Heaven Can Wait and later as Down to Earth. This is probably the best version, even though I really enjoy the Warren Beatty version.

James Gleason plays the role of the guy’s trainer. Max Corkle. He’s the one the guy goes to as the millionaire to say, “Hey, guess what, I’m not dead.” And of course it’s played for comedy, but after that, the trainer is on his side and helps him out, and then he gets a big moment of comedy in the end during the big fight as the cops are investigating the actual murder of the millionaire (and the boxer is now in another body). Mostly it’s a comic character. Gleason is great in the part. Really awesome, and I love that they nominated him. A perfect nomination. But I can’t take him. At best he’s a third choice for me in the category.

The Maltese Falcon is an all time classic. I don’t need to tell you about this. You should have seen it by now. This is the stuff cinema is made of.

Sydney Greenstreet plays Kasper Gutman, one of the most fitting names in cinema history. He’s definitely one of the most memorable characters, and definitely the most iconic in this category. Here’s the thing, though — he’s mostly there for exposition. He’s the guy pulling strings behind the scene, he shows up, he’s amused by Bogart, he explains the Falcon, and then he pretty much sits there amused as things play out and then he goes on his way to find the Falcon elsewhere. There’s no real arc or anything. He’s just a memorable character. So, yes, I do still want to take him, but no, I don’t think he’s an automatic winner or really someone who theoretically should win this category. But it’s not the strongest category in the world, so he definitely rates highly here.

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The Reconsideration: Seems like a runaway for Crisp. I mean, sure, you could look at Gleason and you could look at Greenstreet — most people would look at Greenstreet because it’s The Maltese Falcon and he’s such an iconic character — but I think, all around, this is Crisp’s category. He’s got just the right amount of screen time, which is less than you expect, yet his presence is felt all over the film,  the performance is great, and it fits the category perfectly. To me, Coburn is too much of a lead and the performance is just okay, if we’re talking for voting purposes. Brennan doesn’t do as good a job as he did in other films and feels like he came along because he’s Walter Brennan in the film that got the most Oscar nominations this year. Gleason is great, but he doesn’t feel like the choice. And Greenstreet, as I said — all exposition and presence and not enough performance for me. Crisp feels like the complete package. I’m taking him, despite my love of The Maltese Falcon. He gave the best performance in the category.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley
  2. Sydney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon
  3. James Gleason, Here Comes Mr. Jordan
  4. Charles Coburn, The Devil and Miss Jones
  5. Walter Brennan, Sergeant York

Rankings (films):

  1. The Maltese Falcon
  2. Here Comes Mr. Jordan
  3. How Green Was My Valley
  4. Sergeant York
  5. The Devil and Miss Jones

My Vote: Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley

Recommendations:

The Maltese Falcon — you’re not doing your job if you need me to tell you about this one.

Sergeant York is full on film buff essential. On title alone you should know that. Must see for all film buffs.

How Green Was My Valley is also as essential as Sergeant York, but it doesn’t come off as much because the title doesn’t pop the way Sergeant York does. But it’s essential all around for every film buff. Best Picture winner, John Ford, great film, classic — everything about it is essential from all sides.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is essential as far as the era goes. And it’s an all-time iconic film story. So it should be seen, and for my money, it’s essential for film buffs. So see it.

The Devil and Miss Jones is one of those films that’s a very solid comedy, but is not something you need to rush out and see. If you want to throw it in the Netflix queue and get to it whenever it reaches the top, or catch it whenever TCM shows it, that’s the best way to see this. You do that, and you’ll go, “Oh, yeah, this is pretty good.” That’s the level of this film. Don’t put it on a pedestal and you’ll really like it. Historically, it’s just a pretty good film that no one really remembers. So it’s best to ease into it in order to get the most out of it.

The Last Word: There’s Crisp and then there’s everyone else. Don’t think anyone takes Coburn here, even without the category fraud. I doubt anyone really takes Brennan. Even before you factor in the three previous wins. Gleason I guess you could make a case for. I wouldn’t be opposed to that, I guess. And Greenstreet is great and awesome in everyone’s favorite movie in the category. I just don’t know if I see enough out of the performance to take it. That doesn’t mean he’s not worth taking. That’s for you to decide. For my money, Crisp is an all-around best choice and, while it wouldn’t pop when you glance at a winners list the way Greenstreet would, I think this was the best choice they could have made and he was the best performance in the category.

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1942

William Bendix, Wake Island

Van Heflin, Johnny Eager

Walter Huston, Yankee Doodle Dandy

Frank Morgan, Tortilla Flat

Henry Travers, Mrs. Miniver

Analysis:

Wake Island is a film about the battle of Wake Island. Short, sweet, and great. The film is less than 90 minutes, and it packs a punch. Great film.

We follow the men on the base, and it’s your typical lighthearted army film for the first bit, and then the action starts. And eventually, if you know anything about Wake Island, doesn’t end well for any of the men.

William Bendix plays a man whose about to be discharged and go home to start a life. He’s also one of the ones that likes to have fun and cause trouble. Later, as he’s leaving to go home, he finds out the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He’s not sure what to do — be a civilian or be a soldier. He ends up being back with the men and fighting until the bitter end.

Bendix is inherently a likable actor, and the role fits his persona perfectly. He keeps talking about how he’s gonna raiser turkeys, hogs, chickens, etc — he keeps changing which one it is. And he’s got a pet dog that keeps running away that he gets to be reunited with. They build up all the sympathy for him, only to have him die with the rest of the men in the end. It’s a well-drawn character and Bendix does a great job making him feel well-rounded. I could see some people wanting to take him because he’s so likable, but I don’t know if many actually would. I could see the argument being made, and we’ll see where I end up on him in the end.

Johnny Eager is an early noir. Not quite noir, but it has all the hallmarks of noir. If we’re calling The Maltese Falcon the “first” noir, and Double Indemnity the first “true” noir, then this is one of those transitional films that moves the needle toward the traditional definition of the genre.

(Insert title here) is a gambler who falls for Lana Turner, as you do. He finds out her father is his nemesis, the DA who sent him to prison. He then decides to use her against her father by staging a fake killing she’s “responsible” for. He lies and cheats everyone around him, and is just a terrible person. Though eventually Turner helps him to at least (somewhat) redeem himself. Though someone like that in a movie like this, you can guess how it ends.

Van Heflin plays Johnny’s best (and only, really) friend, an alcoholic. He’s the only one Johnny likes, and he’s really the only one who can talk straight to him. He’s constantly drunk, an intellectual, and very maudlin. There’s a homoerotic subtext to the role that of course they can’t flesh out. But in the 40s, a single man who is overly intellectual is usually coded as homosexual. And considering Johnny has a soft spot for this guy and keeps him around, and he stays around for whatever reason too, so one would assume there’s some subtext there.

Heflin is good. The intellectual aspect is a bit too much for me, but he plays it well. He’s basically if you took Thomas Mitchell’s drunk schtick and mixed it with George Sanders. Sanders was always caustic and demeaning to others. Heflin here is more sardonic and pitiful. He has the levity that Mitchell tended to have with his drunks. He’s definitely top two in the category, that’s for sure. The character makes more of an impression than pretty much anyone else.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a great film. I love that Cagney was known for playing gangsters even though this role won him his Oscar and was more in line with how he started in the business.

It’s a biopic of George M. Cohan who wrote a bunch of patriotic tunes, including the title track. It’s a very Hollywood version of the biopic, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. Cagney is sublime here.

Walter Huston plays Cohan’s father. He’s a hoofer. He and the family all work in vaudeville and they’ve never gotten any sort of notoriety. They travel across the country, working for peanuts. But it’s steady work. Huston infuses the character with a lot of strength and depth, even though it’s not his movie. He’s relegated pretty quickly to being on the sidelines, with us only inferring things about him and the family.

So, while I really like the performance and think he does a great job, mostly he exists to just be the “father” character who dies to give Cagney a big moment later in the film.

Tortilla Flat is based on Steinbeck. And I really couldn’t tell you what it’s about.

A bunch of ne’er-do-wells hang out and drink in some houses and don’t really have jobs. And they all have little schemes to get money. That sort of thing. I only saw the film once, but I remember all the characters being unlikable and the film being ungodly slow and plotless.

Frank Morgan plays the Pirate, a homeless dude who has a bunch of dogs. He’s secretly got a lot of money hidden in the forest and wants to buy a gold candlestick for one of his dead dogs. It’s a hard character to explain, but he’s definitely the best part of the film. It’s a poignant character that resonates well. His best scene is the one where he talks about St. Francis to his dogs and they have a “vision.” He really nails it.

The drawbacks to the character are twofold: first, his film is the worst in the category. And second, he’s playing a Mexican. Really don’t want to have to vote for someone doing bronze-face. But as for the performance — shit, is he terrific. Definitely makes an otherwise unbearable film (for me, at least) bearable.

Mrs. Miniver is a great war film. Not an all-time great, but one can see why it made a splash in 1942. It’s about a middle class family facing the onslaught of war and dealing with it as best they can. It’s more of a melodrama than a war film, but it’s still a really good one.

Henry Travers plays the stationmaster of the town who is trying to enter the local rose competition and dethrone the perennial winner (the woman who runs the competition) with his new “Miniver” rose. And his big moment is, when she realizes she should start being less of a bitch, she awards him first prize over her own roses, and he gets this big moment of happiness in his life… before he dies in a bombing attack off screen moments later.

It’s a sweet performance, full of pathos, and Travers really nails it. Though to me, his role is more of a nice part of the film rather than an essential part of it. He’s nice, but he doesn’t really have an arc and he’s more of a subplot that’s enjoyable more than anything. So I really wouldn’t think to take him unless I had to.

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The Reconsideration: Interesting one. I used to think this was the weakest Best Supporting Actor category of all time, but I’m not sure if it is. But I’m not into that sort of distinction anymore, so I don’t really care. I do think the performances are quietly solid, even if this isn’t a particularly memorable category, historically.

I wouldn’t take Travers. He’s probably my #5. He feels the slightest of all the performances, even if the character is likable. Bendix is awesome, but I wouldn’t take him over some of the others. I don’t think he’s really a 4, but I think I have him at 4. Huston is always solid and he rates 3rd, even though Bendix is also right there with him. Morgan is really sympathetic and I really want to take him, but his film is easily the worst and that hurts him. Then there’s Van Heflin, who is quietly very good in the role and plays a different wavelength from the rest of his film. He also, in a weird way, does what Morgan does, and makes a somewhat so-so film more tolerable when he’s on screen. So I think I’m gonna side with the Academy here and take Van Heflin, because he was the most interesting and at least remained memorable for me. He kept his film interesting.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Van Heflin, Johnny Eager
  2. Frank Morgan, Tortilla Flat
  3. Walter Huston, Yankee Doodle Dandy
  4. William Bendix, Wake Island
  5. Henry Travers, Mrs. Miniver

Rankings (films):

  1. Yankee Doodle Dandy
  2. Mrs. Miniver
  3. Wake Island
  4. Johnny Eager
  5. Tortilla Flat

My Vote: Van Heflin, Johnny Eager

Recommendations:

Yankee Doodle Dandy is film buff essential. 100%. An all-time great film. A classic in every aspect. And it won Best Actor. So there’s no reason for anyone who likes movies to not see it.

Mrs. Miniver is essential for the Best Picture win and because it’s a classic of the 40s. Not on the level of Yankee Doodle Dandy but essential nonetheless.

Wake Island is a terrific war film and I highly recommend it. Not essential at all, and at most it’s an awesome 40s film that’s a gem of the decade that you should check out because I think it’s worth watching. Even I wouldn’t call it essential from my own list. I’d call it one of those movies you ought to check out because it’s great.

Johnny Eager is a decent film. A mix of drama and noir. Pretty good. But Robert Taylor doesn’t hold up like some other actors of the era. Mostly it’s essential for Oscar buffs because of the win (and even then, not really), but otherwise it’s just okay. Worth it as a transitional film that’s showing how dark crime drama became noir.

Tortilla Flat is not a particularly good film and I find it quite boring. Morgan is good in it, and Spencer Tracy is in it. Otherwise — not something I’d really recommend for anyone. Tonally it’s different from other films, from what I remember. But mostly I think this is all around considered a not particularly great film that’s also not overly memorable.

The Last Word: I could see a case made for Heflin, Morgan, Huston… hell even Bendix or Travers, I guess. It’s pretty wide open. As long as you make a decent case for whomever you choose, I think you’ve got options here. I agree with the way they went, but otherwise, this isn’t an overly memorable category, so really, I mean, not that logistics matters, but Huston later wins one (not that he isn’t deserving of two), but any of the others (including him) are cool to win. Take your pick with this one.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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