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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actor, 1947-1948)

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.

1947

Charles Bickford, The Farmer’s Daughter

Thomas Gomez, Ride the Pink Horse

Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street

Robert Ryan, Crossfire

Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death

Analysis:

The Farmer’s Daughter is a movie I, and I imagine a fair amount of people really into the Oscars, went into with some contempt. Loretta Young’s Oscar is generally thought of as one of the worst Oscars ever given out. Now, that’s not to say the category was that strong that it’s terrible. It’s just — the nature of the performance vs. a very strong performance by a veteran Rosalind Russell who’d earned one of this twice over by this point… it looks bad and people say how bad it is. It reminds me of Sandra Bullock’s win in 2009. Awful, but we like her. But it’s still awful. Yet, the category’s not that strong that you can say it should never have happened, even though there is an alternative choice for it. But that’s for Best Actress. This isn’t that.

The film is about a Swedish girl (she’s doing the full John Qualen, for those who know what I mean) who ends up as a maid to a political family. And she wins them over with her charm and her good sense. And eventually she ends up being backed in an election of her own. And man, doesn’t it suck when your maid quits to go into politics. #WhitePeopleProblems

Of course the son, a House member, falls in love with her — first as the maid, but he only acts on it once she’s into politics. Because social standing. This is the 40s, not Mesopotamia.

Charles Bickford plays the head butler of the house. He’s introduced as the kind of guy who, “if you can work for him for a day, you can work anywhere.” So of course he becomes her supporter early on. He’s a salt of the earth type. Strong, reliable, and he becomes a mentor figure. It’s a very solid performance. The nomination is well deserved. But that’s the reward. I could see making a case for wanting to take him, but it’s tough to see him skate through the other big nominees in this category. Don’d think I’d be able to take him over the competition.

Ride the Pink Horse is one of the weirdest noirs I’ve ever seen. I remember seeing it for the Quest and saying, “What the hell was that?” And I hadn’t seen it since. I was due to watch it again, especially now that Criterion put out a good version of it.

Robert Montgomery shows up in New Mexico looking to blackmail a mobster for the death of his friend. And things get complicated, the guy he’s looking for isn’t there, and he can’t find a room, and the FBI is there. He makes friends with some of the locals, and of course shit goes down, people die, etc. etc. It’s actually stronger than I thought it was. I guess I caught it on a weird day the first time and wasn’t quite ready for it.

Thomas Gomez — who I’d like to point out is really awesome in Force of Evil as John Garfield’s brother — plays Pancho, who runs a merry-go-round where Montgomery stays since he can’t get a room anywhere else. He becomes friends with Montgomery and he’s charming and ethnic. Then he gets beaten up but doesn’t give up any info about Montgomery. That’s the most memorable element of the performance. He’s definitely a scene-stealer, but this is for sure one of those situations where the nomination is the reward. No matter how you slice this category he doesn’t make it any higher than third. Yet, he deserves the nomination for being a Mexican actor portraying a Mexican character as something other than a stereotype. That goes a long way for me in this category. Still, can’t take him as much as I really like the nomination.

Miracle on 34th Street is a very famous story. It’s been made twice, which ensures that nearly everyone has seen at least one version of the story at least once in their life.

You have to know the story. They take Santa Claus to court to prove he’s Santa Claus. It’s magical.

Edmund Gwenn plays Santa Claus. And there’s no way you can be upset with Santa Claus winning an Oscar. It’s hard to watch this movie and not think Gwenn is Santa. He’s so great here. I can’t be upset that he won, but I also don’t necessarily have to take him. That’s really what this category comes down to. Do you or do you not take Santa Claus?

Crossfire is the B movie version of Gentleman’s Agreement. More of a noir, but also dealing with the same issue — anti-semitism. Just in a much more direct, down and dirty way.

A Jewish man is brutally murdered, and the police investigate. He had been at a bar with a bunch of soldiers earlier that evening, so they start questioning all the soldiers. And we watch as they slowly piece together what happened that evening, and figure out who killed the guy.

Robert Ryan plays one of the soldiers. He’s loud and charming and also aggressive and a bully. And he’s also anti-semitic. He’s really strong in the role. Memorable, and definitely holds his own. It’s stronger than I used to think it was, and I think he’s solidly in the conversation in this category, even though again, not sure I can take him over the two major contenders. But we’ll see.

Kiss of Death is one of the all-time noirs. I love this movie.

Victor Mature is arrested during a robbery and, rather than rat on his accomplices, figures they’re gonna look after his family if he doesn’t. So he’s sent to jail for 20 years. And a few years into the stretch he finds out his wife killed herself and the kids are at an orphanage. So he makes a deal to help the cops on another case for parole. He lets “slip” that one of his guys ratted on him, which leads to his crooked mob lawyer to have Richard Widmark, playing one of the best psychopaths in the history of cinema, go out looking for him. Which leads to the famous scene where he pushes the guy’s mother down the stairs in her wheelchair.

So Mature gets out on parole, and then he’s palling around with Widmark, who’s openly confessing to murders, which is enough to get him arrested and clear Mature’s slate with the cops. Only Widmark doesn’t get convicted, and now he’s coming for Mature.

It’s a great movie. One of the great noirs of all time. And Widmark — holy shit is he great. He’s such a psycho in this movie, it’s wonderful. It makes sense that he’d be nominated opposite Santa Claus. Ultimate good versus ultimate evil. It’s clearly between those two. As solid as the other people are, I can’t bring myself to want to take them over thsoe two.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Do you or do you not take Santa? That’s really all this category is.

And you know what — I don’t take Santa. I’m totally cool with the win, so this is a can’t-lose scenario for me. My favorite performance in the category was Richard Widmark, so I take Richard Widmark. But because I’m cool if #1 or #2 wins, I don’t mind Gwenn beating him.

Also, as a side note, Widmark is a guy who turned in solid performances for years and never much got a lot of due. He’s great in Judgment at Nuremberg and go zero love from any voting body anywhere, yet he’s just as good as Spencer Tracy and Maximilian Schell in that movie. Not that it has any bearing on this category, I just wanted to mention that.

But yeah, I’ll take Widmark, even though Gwenn’s a fine choice. You can’t really argue with Santa in perhaps the most famous Santa role in history. Ryan would be a solid choice most years but not here. And Bickford is almost too solid for a #4/5. Really solid category in a low-key way. And Gomez, as much as it pains me, is stronger than a #5. But them’s the breaks.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death
  2. Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street
  3. Robert Ryan, Crossfire
  4. Charles Bickford, The Farmer’s Daughter
  5. Thomas Gomez, Ride the Pink Horse

Rankings (films):

  1. Kiss of Death
  2. Miracle on 34th Street
  3. Crossfire
  4. The Farmer’s Daughter
  5. Ride the Pink Horse

My Vote: Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death

Recommendations:

Miracle on 34th Street is basically life essential. Who doesn’t grow up seeing this film? Just see it in order to be a person. It’s great. Also, don’t be the person whose only seen the remake with Matilda. Nobody wants to be that person.

Kiss of Death is an essential noir. An all-time noir on the list of greatest noirs of all time, and it’s actually pretty high on the list of essential films of all time. Not top tier, but in that top 1000. So, essential for pretty much all walks of film buffs.

Crossfire is actually fairly important, historically. I recommend people see a decent amount of B movies, and in terms of really famous B movies, the noirs are up there, like Detour, etc., this one is the only one to get nominated for Best Picture. Plus its subject matter is interesting for the era — a lot about this movie is essential. I think film buffs with an eye toward history must see this. Film buffs who just like the classics don’t need to rush out for this. Oscar buffs must see this. It makes a great double feature with Gentleman’s Agreement.

The Farmer’s Daughter is essential for Oscar buffs because of the win. Most people think it’s undeserved. You should see it in order to weigh in on that debate. As a film, it’s fine. It’s almost a Capra movie, the way it plays out. But it’s not. Honestly, without the Oscar win it would just be a pretty decent movie with a good cast. Not a high recommend, but it is solid if you happen to want to see it. If it sounds interesting, go for it, otherwise you can skip it and be fine.

Ride the Pink Horse is a noir. And I recommend pretty much all noirs. Not essential at all, but if you’re like me, someone who likes seeking out noir festivals and things of that sort, you should check this out if you get the chance. Casual film buffs don’t need to look for this unless they’re really into the genre. You can skip it and be fine. Serious film and noir buffs should look into this one.

The Last Word: Of course Gwenn is a good choice. I just liked Widmark better. I figure most people are taking one or the other here. Ryan could be a solid choice. Bickford probably isn’t a good choice over those other three. And I doubt anyone actually takes Gomez. It’s Gwenn first, Widmark as an alternate. Those two hold up the best, because they’re all time classic characters. It would have been a good decision either way. And again — you can’t argue with Santa.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1948

Charles Bickford, Johnny Belinda

Jose Ferrer, Joan of Arc

Oskar Homolka, I Remember Mama

Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Cecil Kellaway, The Luck of the Irish

Analysis:

Johnny Belinda is one of my favorite films from this entire Quest. I had no idea what it was and went in completely cold, and ended up loving it so, so much.

Lew Ayres is a city doctor who moves to a small coastal town. He soon meets Belinda MacDonald, a poor mute girl working on a farm with her father and aunt. They think she’s dumb, so she’s given menial tasks and treated almost as a burden. Ayres quickly realizes that Belinda is actually quite intelligent, but doesn’t have the means of communication. So he starts to teach her sign language. And pretty soon her family realizes they’ve underestimated her all along. Soon, a man from the village takes notice of her (even though she now has a crush on the doctor, naturally), and one day actually rapes her. And she doesn’t say anything to anyone out of fear. She gets pregnant, and everyone assumes it was the doctor who did it. And melodrama and death and eventually a trial ensue.

It’s actually pretty great. I really fell in love with this film from its first half, which is just wonderfully acted by the entire cast.

Charles Bickford plays Belinda’s father, who works sun up to sun down every day on his farm, trying to make ends meet. He works hard and, while he loves his daughter, he can’t give her a pass, because everyone needs to pull weight around the farm. He has a wonderful moment when Belinda starts teaching him sign language and he realizes that she’s actually quite smart and he’s never realized it. And then he becomes a big ally for her throughout the rest of the film, even during her troubles.

It’s a great performance. Really well done. I would think about voting for this performance most years. This category, he can go as high as 1 and as low as 3, but there are also two other performances that are also pretty great and memorable, so as good as he is, he’s got stiff competition for the vote.

Joan of Arc is self-explanatory. It’s Ingrid Bergman playing Joan of Arc. That’s the film.

French peasant girl claims god told her she was going to lead the French to victory over the English in the 100 Years War. And then she almost does…. until they burn her at the stake. It’s a pretty good film. It’s well-made and all that. Not a real classic, but a very good version of the story.

Jose Ferrer plays the Dauphin. The famous scene with him is when she is brought before him and they try to trick her by hiding him in the crowd and putting an impostor on the throne. Because only a person truly sent by God will notice. And of course she does, and she picks him out, and he becomes convinced that she’s legitimate, and becomes a big supporter of her. That’s pretty much the role. He’s solid, but nothing overly spectacular.

He was a respected stage actor making his first film appearance here. They loved that shit. So he was nominated. And then he made two more movies and the second was the one he won Best Actor for. You see this kind of trajectory a lot with certain actors. They rush to give them an Oscar because they finally left the stage to be in pictures.

He’s just fine here. At best he’s maybe fourth in the category. Don’t think anyone actually thinks he’s good enough to take here.

I Remember Mama is just a great film. I don’t know how to explain it. If you like those “childhood reminiscence” films, you’ll love this.

A little girl narrates her childhood, growing up as an immigrant in America. Her parents are very poor and do whatever they can to make ends meet. There’s a constant refrain about having to “go to the bank,” which the kids take as something awful. Going to the bank means they have to dip into their savings, which is the last thing they want to do. So they squeeze every single penny in order to not do that. And in the end, we realize — there was no savings account. If the money didn’t last, there was nothing to dip into. It’s really wonderful. So much of the film is comprised of little stories here and there, and it’s really wonderful.

Oskar Homolka plays the uncle of the family. At first he’s the big scary one all the kids want to hide from, but they find out very quickly that he’s actually very nice and enjoys a good laugh (especially at his sisters’ expenses). And he becomes a friend to the kids and a good ally over the years. And he’s loud and blustery and a very amusing presence, and eventually he gets a nice death scene as well.

The character is very well-drawn. When you see this movie, you’ll remember him. He’s very good and feels authentic. The performance is somewhat dated, but he fits the film perfectly and in most years, he might be my #2 and even potentially the vote. In this category, I’m concerned he might even fall to #3 with the other big hitters we have. But either way, definitely a great performance and definitely something to consider for a vote.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a masterpiece. A true American masterpiece.

Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston go prospecting in Mexico and strike gold. But pretty soon they start letting it corrupt them, specifically Bogart, who loses his mind with paranoia and greed. It’s — perfect.

Walter Huston plays Howard, an old prospect who “know(s) what gold does to men’s souls.” At first he’s the harmless old-timer who talks a lot and is jovial and has enough knowledge to be worth being brought along, but eventually he becomes the conscience of the group. At first, you think he’s the weak one, but it turns out he’s the strongest of them all.

It’s a great performance, and I don’t think anyone would argue with him being worthy of the win here. You may not take him, because you may have an alternate preference, but there’s no denying that he’s a great choice and gives a truly outstanding performance.

The Luck of the Irish is not the Disney channel movie about the kid playing basketball against the evil leprechaun. Sadly.

Tyrone Power is an Irish guy who meets a leprechaun, and becomes torn about whether or not he should stay in America or go back home to Ireland. You can guess where it goes from there.

Cecil Kellaway plays the leprechaun. The joke is that you’re never quite sure if he actually is one or not (though it’s clear that he is), and a lot of the humor comes from him being impish and basically manipulating things so Power falls in love with the Irish girl and stays at “home” with her.

He’s perfectly cast. Kellaway and Barry Fitzgerald are the two quintessential “Irish” actors. Kellaway is a lot of fun here and the nomination is amusing, if not all that “earned.” The performance is entertaining, but it’s clear that the nomination is the reward. No way you actually vote for him, though it’s nice to see him on the list.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I don’t think you can take Kellaway or Ferrer, but the other three are all fair game.

Homolka’s performance feels the most authentic, but that’s probably because you don’t really know who he is. Between the three, I’d put him third. Bickford, meanwhile, is great in the role, though he might only be third for most people since I don’t think a lot of people have even seen his film or would take him. Though I think he’s very solid in the part. And then there’s Walter Huston — so horribly overdue for an Oscar, put in years of fantastic work, and he has a great performance. This is really an open and shut case for Walter Huston, but I did want to mention how worthy the other two are as well.

I don’t think you can deny the total package that is Walter Huston in this category. The performance is best (the film is best), the category is solid and he easily rises above it, and he’s long overdue for an Oscar. How could you not take him?

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  2. Charles Bickford, Johnny Belinda
  3. Oskar Homolka, I Remember Mama
  4. Cecil Kellaway, The Luck of the Irish
  5. Jose Ferrer, Joan of Arc

Rankings (films):

  1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  2. Johnny Belinda
  3. I Remember Mama
  4. Joan of Arc
  5. The Luck of the Irish

My Vote: Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Recommendations:

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so essential I don’t even know where to begin. It’s one of the fifty greatest American films ever made. Not 100. Fifty. If you even remotely like film, you need to see this. This is a masterpiece of the first order.

Johnny Belinda is a film that I love dearly. So I say everyone should see it. But objectively, it’s not that essential, and is pretty much forgotten today. Oscar buffs need to see it because of the win. I think film buffs should see it because it’s great. Not even because it’s a classic or anything. I just think it’s wonderful, and Jane Wyman and Agnes Moorehead are so good in it, as are Charles Bickford and Lew Ayres. I recommend this very, very highly.

I Remember Mama is not essential, but very good. If you’re into the Spielberg kind of story, this is for you. Or, more accurately — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird — those stories. Where a person narrates their childhood and we see vignettes of the family. That’s what this is. And it’s great. I think all film buffs need to see this movie. The odds that people will love it are very high, which to me means everyone ought to see it. Cannot recommend this highly enough.

Joan of Arc is solid. Looks good. I remember really liking the color in the film. The story is one you’ve seen before in almost all other retellings (except maybe The Passion of Jan of Arc. This is very much not that). Hell, if you’ve seen that eight minute version on The Simpsons, that’s basically the plot of this movie. It’s not a classic, it’s not essential, but it’s very solid. So I recommend it. Don’t run out of your way to see it, but it’s worth a look.

The Luck of the Irish is fun. That’s about all I can say. Not a particularly great movie. But it’s Tyrone Power chasing around a leprechaun looking for his gold. (Well, he’s not really looking for gold. But you get the idea.) If it’s on TCM, it’ll amuse you. Otherwise, not overly essential or great in any respect.

The Last Word: It’s Huston. This is one of the best choices they ever made. Bickford and Homolka are both great and would be worthy for a vote most years, but not against Huston. They wouldn’t have held up nearly as well as he has. They made the right choice here.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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