The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1943-1944)
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.
Charles Bickford, The Song of Bernadette
Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier
J. Carrol Naish, Sahara
Claude Rains, Casablanca
Akim Tamiroff, For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Song of Bernadette is one of the few overly religious films I actually like.
Bernadette is a regular girl, not too bright, not particularly much of anything. She has trouble in school but really does want to learn. One day, she’s hanging around the site of a toxic waste dump (as you do) and she sees the Virgin Mary. And of course no one believes her. But then they question her and see she’s not lying. So then everyone believes it’s a miracle and all that, and she becomes a nun. And then she dies of radiation poisoning, because, you know… toxic.
Charles Bickford plays a priest who is sort of the Dumbledore of the movie. He’s the guy that comes to the school early on and seems like the ideal religious figure to Bernadette. Then when she has her vision, he questions the validity of it and doubts her. But eventually he becomes her biggest supporter when he sees she has no malice. So over the course of the film, he shows up in moments when she needs counsel and gives it.
It’s a standard priest kind of role. Bickford does fine in it. Mostly it seems as though he came along with the film, which got the most nominations this year. I wouldn’t consider him anything other than fifth here. Don’t think anyone would, really.
The More the Merrier is such a 40s movie. It could only exist in the 40s. They tried to remake it in 1966, but it didn’t work.
During the housing shortage in World War II, Charles Coburn, a millionaire, is in town to visit a friend and finds his hotel room isn’t gonna be available for a couple of days. So he finds an ad in the paper from a woman looking for a roommate. So he moves in with her. Comedy ensues, because they’re completely different people. Then he meets a soldier on leave for a few days and Coburn decides to let him stay there too. And then he engineers a romance between the two younger people.
It’s a really great film. A lot of fun. Coburn is awesome, Jean Arthur is always good, and you have Joel McCrea too. It’s a very well-written comedy.
Charles Coburn is the main character of the story. Twice now, he’s been nominated Supporting when he’s really the lead purely because he’s not the biggest star on the billing. Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea are the “stars” of the picture, but Coburn is the lead. The same thing happened with The Devil and Miss Jones. Here, Coburn is much better and I understand why he won. That said, he’s still a lead. So this category is gonna come down to whether or not you can abide the category fraud. Which will be tough, since he’s up against Claude Rains in his most memorable role. But we’ll deal with that in a bit.
Sahara is a great war film. Humphrey Bogart and a tank. It’s the Fury of the 40s.
Bogie and his tank team get separated from their unit and they’re wandering around the desert. And he keeps picking up these motley characters and trying to make it across the desert with his tank and his men in tact. It’s a great war film.
J. Carrol Naish plays Giuseppe, an Italian prisoner. They pick him up, originally want nothing to do with him, but take him along so that way he doesn’t die horribly in the desert. He’s pretty much just there for most of the film, doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but in the end he redeems himself by alerting the men when their German prisoner tries to escape, getting himself mortally wounded in the process. I guess the Academy liked the idea of the guy who should be on the side of the Nazis coming around and helping the Americans. They definitely go for that sort of symbolism. Otherwise, this nomination seems a lot like the Ian Bannen nomination for Flight of the Phoenix in 1965 — okay. He’s one of a bunch of dudes and they picked him. Sure. Not a performance I’m gonna vote for, even though I’m not opposed to seeing it nominated.
Casablanca is Casablanca. I mean, what more do you need to say?
Claude Rains is Captain Renault, who is such a boss.
What is there to say about Captain Renault? Of course he’s top two in the category. How can he not be?
For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on the Hemingway novel. I remember seeing it the first time and just not liking it and being bored out of my mind. Then I watched it about six months ago and generally liked it, even though I didn’t think too much of it outside of a level of respect.
It’s about guerrilla fighters during the Spanish Civil War. That’s pretty much it. They’re trying to blow up a bridge, and we follow them. It’s a 40s prestige picture with stars, so you’ve got Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, romance, the whole deal.
Akim Tamiroff plays the leader of the guerrilla fighters. And he’s a character. Loud, boisterous, but also very stubborn. Eventually he is usurped by his wife when he can’t see logic and becomes kind of an antagonist for a little while, but mostly he’s just petulant. And eventually he comes around.
It’s the kind of role that would be nominated here. I think he’s just fine in it. I don’t know if I’d vote for him. He feels like one of those entries that’s very solid, but once you get him in the category, he just kind of hangs around the middle and no one really likes him enough to vote for him. Those nominations happen every Oscar season.
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The Reconsideration: Well this one sways entirely in one direction, doesn’t it?
I doubt anyone actually votes for Bickford. Tamiroff, I guess some people might go for, but not a whole lot. Naish is good and in a great film, but I don’t think the character is enough to really warrant a vote. He’s one of an ensemble. His nomination could have just as easily been someone else’s for a film that felt exactly like the kind of film that was just outside of Oscar contention and since it was sort of in that realm it got one token nomination to show for it. But regardless, I don’t think he’s the vote either.
This is clearly a category of Coburn vs. Rains. And Coburn is a lead. That hurts him. Apparently not with the Academy, but with me, it does. And Rains is Captain Renault, one of the greatest screen characters of all time. To me, there’s no other choice. This is all Claude Rains, all day, every day, and there’s never anything for me to reconsider.
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- Claude Rains, Casablanca
- Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier
- J. Carrol Naish, Sahara
- Akim Tamiroff, For Whom the Bell Tolls
- Charles Bickford, The Song of Bernadette
- The More the Merrier
- The Song of Bernadette
- For Whom the Bell Tolls
My Vote: Claude Rains, Casablanca
Sahara is an all-time war film. A must for film buffs. It’s Bogie in a tank in the desert. Great stuff. Film buffs will want to see this, and there’s no reason to skip it.
The More the Merrier is an all-time great comedy. Not essential for casual film buffs, but highly recommended for all. Essential for Oscar buffs because of the win, essential for comedy fans, and a must for people who’ve only seen the mediocre remake with Cary Grant (Walk, Don’t Run). A really terrific film.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is a famous title, with big stars and big production value, but otherwise it’s just okay. I feel like it’s more essential in name than anything else. It’s not like it’s an all-time great film. It’s one of those films that’s labeled a classic just because of all its pieces. But the sum is not greater than its parts. So you don’t need to see this, but I guess it’s worth a watch at some point for serious film buffs. Average film buffs will be fine without it.
The Song of Bernadette is essential for Oscar buffs because of the Best Actress win and the fact that it was the film of 1943 for the Academy — most nominations, etc. Outside of that, it’s just a pretty solid film. If you can stand religious films, see it. If not, it’s not overly essential for much of anybody unless you’re really into the 40s.
The Last Word: For me, it’s Claude Rains and then everyone else. I see why Coburn won, but he’s clearly the lead of his film, and I can’t vote for that. He makes a good run for it, though, since he is quite terrific, but no one’s beating Rains for me. I don’t think they made a terrible decision, but I do think they made the second best decision and a better one was there to be had. (Also, Tamiroff is someone who can be considered her, but I don’t think his character holds water to either of the other two.)
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Hume Cronyn, The Seventh Cross
Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way
Claude Rains, Mr. Skeffington
Clifton Webb, Laura
Monty Woolley, Since You Went Away
The Seventh Cross is a pretty badass movie. It’s not wholly perfect in its execution, but it’s very, very good, and it’s actually quite underrated. Even by me.
Seven men escape a concentration camp. One of them is Spencer Tracy. The camp puts out seven crosses, vowing to capture and kill all the men. They get six of them. Tracy remains on the run. We follow him as he tries to get through the country to safety. It’s pretty awesome.
Hume Cronyn plays an old friend of Tracy’s who comes to his aid. He has a wife and kids and a good job, but he risks everything in order to help Tracy. The important thing about the character is how they are both indifferent and naive to what’s actually going on. In their minds, “Hey, I’m doing real well and everything’s going great.” They don’t care about politics, so they’re not looking into all the stories of what’s happening. Yet still, a friend is a friend.
Cronyn does a good job with it. It’s solid work. Not something I’d vote for, but I get why they nominated him. The character is one of those that they would put on this list. Not sure he rates much higher than fourth for a vote, though.
Going My Way is a movie that could only win Best Picture in the 40s. It’s insane how little of a plot there is in this movie and yet how entertaining it is.
Bing Crosby is a priest. Yes. He’s a modern priest. He sings, he plays baseball. In the opening scene (or rather, the actual opening scene, you know, after all the set up that all these old movies have), we see him playing baseball in the street with kids and breaking a window. And he gets scolded by the person when all the kids run away. It’s supposed to be funny, because priests don’t do that!
Anyway, he’s there to take over, or rather, “help out” the parish of Barry Fitzgerald, an aging priest who adheres to the old Irish Catholic ways. So much of the film is an ideological clash between the two men and their differing styles, even though eventually they come to see eye to eye and respect and even really like one another. Crosby even teaches Fitzgerald how to play golf. And then the parish burns down and they all pretty much leave it. It’s a strange movie. Lot of fun, really great, just… only in 1944.
Fitzgerald plays the older priest. And he holds the distinction of being the only person in the history of the Oscars to be nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same performance! He was nominated in both categories, and since Bing Crosby won lead, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Fitzgerald was gonna win this category. And I get it. He’s pretty awesome in the role. Is he a slam dunk, must-vote-for winner? No. But he’s really good and easily rates top two in this category. So there’s that. He’s believable, he brings a real presence and depth to his character, and I think he’s a performance that you can easily vote for and not vote for, and it’ll come down to how you feel about the rest of the category. So I’ll reserve further judgment until the end.
Mr. Skeffington is another Bette Davis melodrama. It’s a nice mix of all those other ones she’s played.
She plays a rich woman with a lot of men who want her. The only man she really loves is her brother. (Not sexually, though it’s a 40s melodrama, that can easily be implied, and in fact might actually be what’s going on. It’s been a while since I saw it. Plus, Written on the Wind. That’s the subtext to all of these melodramas.) He embezzles money from his boss, who’s always had a crush on Davis. So in order to save the brother, she marries the boss. She has no real love for him, and constantly sleeps with other men. But then the minute he cheats, she divorces him. He then leaves for Europe. Meanwhile she ends up getting sick and ugly, at which point she realizes how good she had it with the boss. Then he comes back from Europe old and blind. And just like Jane Eyre and Rochester, they can end up together in the end when they’re on a level playing field.
Claude Rains plays Mr. Skeffington. He’s the boss. He gets to play a sympathetic character, the man in love who isn’t loved back and is openly betrayed by his wife. But then, when the film decides to focus on Bette’s aging and whatnot, he’s off in Europe, knowing exactly what the climate there is like for Jews. So then he comes back, poor, blind and beaten down.
Now, he does a good job with the role. He’s very much a tragic figure. Only, I’d rather see him off in Europe, being persecuted as a Jew, and not see Bette Davis vainly pretend she’s young and pretty. I know Hollywood wanted to see that in 1944, but to me, it’s the Rains story that’s much more intriguing. Of course, even without it, it’s implied what happened to him abroad, so that’s something that could ultimately help him in this category. But not being on screen, it’s hard for me to want to actually vote for that. I’m left wanting more of a character, which in this case is more because the film doesn’t give it to us and not because the performance makes me really want to see it. Gonna be hard for me to actually want to vote for him in that case.
Laura is a great noir.
A woman is killed, the police investigate it, and we see flashbacks of her and how we got to this point, trying to figure out which one of the people in her life killed her.
Dana Andrews is the detective. Clifton Webb is a newspaperman who was a close friend of hers. Vincent Price is her fiancé, who is also the kept man of her aunt. Then there’s Judith Anderson as the aunt. And there’s the housekeeper as well. And as Andrews questions all these people and gets to know Laura, he becomes obsessed with her the way everyone seems to have done. Only there’s a twist — Laura isn’t dead. So now we have to figure out who committed the murder (and might try to do so again). It’s pretty great.
Webb plays the kind of character he excelled at — upper class, sophisticated, but ultimately kind of vain and shallow, and most people just assume he’s gay. It’s hard to get into the character without spoiling the movie, but it makes sense that they nominated him. It makes sense even without the ending, really. He was nominated for similar characters after this, much more well done in The Razor’s Edge in two years. This is a good nomination that reminds me of the first time someone plays the character they’re known for. Like… who’s a good example — Amy Adams. She played the same type of character a bunch for a little while there. So while she’s not a perfect example (since I would have given her the Oscar for the first performance), to me, this is Webb’s first time out of the gate with this persona, and he’d build on it later on and play the same thing over again. So I get this nomination, even though I wouldn’t vote for this for the win.
Since You Went Away is the war at home. A war movie without any battle scenes. About what life is like for those left home by the soldiers and how they can help in their own way.
Claudette Colbert has to raise her daughters while her husband is off at war, and we follow their lives. Having to take in boarders, which one finds romance, etc etc. It’s long, but it’s a really good film.
Monty Woolley plays a Colonel who becomes a boarder in Colbert’s house. He plays the same kind of character he played in The Man Who Came to Dinner, which made him a star. He’s old, he’s a curmudgeon, and he doesn’t really want to be around other people. Let me stay in my room, leave me alone, give me quiet, and I will pay my rent in full and on time. And of course he becomes warm to the family and opens up and becomes a good friend. And his big scenes revolve around his grandson, played by Robert Walker. They have a dicey relationship because he wanted the grandson to be a respected officer, but he failed out and is now a low level military man. So they fight a lot, even though it’s clear Woolley loves him, but Woolley never allows himself to show it. There’s a nice scene where Walker and Jennifer Jones get engaged and Woolley congratulates them. And then when Walker dies, he gets a really emotional scene where he breaks down about never showing him his true feelings. It’s a really well put together role, and Woolley plays it perfectly.
I don’t know if he’d by my #1 in the category, but he’s definitely a solid entry and well deserves a look for a vote. My one concern is that he doesn’t really show as much emotion as I’d like, making me feel like he’s kind of a one-note actor. Which is fine. I just… I think I needed him to fully give me something to make my heart break in order to vote for him rather than something that feels more like a filmic construction than full on character work. Still, he’s definitely top two here.
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The Reconsideration: This one’s pretty easy for me. Cronyn and Webb are not even in the conversation. Rains I’d like to vote for, but to be honest, he probably wouldn’t rate higher than third even if I got to see more done with him. He’s the title character of the film and yet he feels like a vehicle for Davis more than his own character. It’s either Fitzgerald or Woolley, and I have reservations about Woolley’s actual performance. Then we have Fitzgerald, who’s always wonderful, does a great job, creates a three-dimensional character, and was nominated both lead and supporting. That last one isn’t specifically why I’m taking him, but it helps. So he’s my choice, even though if I chose to really go deep into this, I could definitely make a case for either Woolley or Rains.
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- Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way
- Monty Woolley, Since You Went Away
- Claude Rains, Mr. Skeffington
- Clifton Webb, Laura
- Hume Cronyn, The Seventh Cross
- Going My Way
- Since You Went Away
- The Seventh Cross
- Mr. Skeffington
My Vote: Barry Fitzgerald, Going My Way
Going My Way is a classic and is probably essential for all film buffs, just because of how many places it cross-references. Best Picture winner, one of those classics you know by name because of how famous it is, great film, classic story — hell, even if you’ve just seen The Departed you’ll probably see this just to see what movie Alec Baldwin references when talking about Fitzy’s mother.
Laura is an essential film as well. Film buff essential for sure. One of the all time classics of the era, a must see.
Since You Went Away is not as essential as the other two, but in the context of the 40s, this is 100% essential. If you’re studying film history, you must see this. Otherwise, it’s just a high recommend. Loaded with stars, great film, great performances, and David O. Selznick. No reason for a serious film buff not to see this.
The Seventh Cross is an awesome little thriller. Just think of the premise — seven people escape from a concentration camp. Six are captured and killed. The seventh has to secretly make it through Germany to freedom, getting help anywhere he can get it. Why would you not want to see that? All things considered, it’s not essential, but it’s pretty great and you should see it because you want to see good films.
Mr. Skeffington is a Bette Davis melodrama. Not essential. You can skip it if you want. If you’re not into Bette Davis or melodramas, you’re not missing out on all that much. Though — Claude Rains. You might want to see it for him.
The Last Word: Seems like a runaway win for Fitzgerald. Hard to argue with being nominated in both lead and supporting. And with his co-star only in lead, it was almost definitely gonna work out this way. I could see others taking Woolley or Rains, but for me, Fitzgerald seems like an easy choice.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)