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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best 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

Gary Cooper, Sergeant York

Cary Grant, Penny Serenade

Walter Huston, The Devil and Daniel Webster

Robert Montgomery, Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Orson Welles, Citizen Kane

Analysis:

Sergeant York is a biopic of Alvin York. You know, that guy.

Gary Cooper plays York, a backwoods hillbilly who spent most of his younger years shirking responsibility, drinking, carousing, and being a public nuisance. Oh, but he can shoot really well, so there’s that. One day, he gets struck by lightning and magically changes his life. Because, you know, that happens. And he starts going to church and renounces violence and all that. But then war breaks out, and he gets drafted. So he has to decide what he’s gonna do. And he decides to fight. And because he’s a crack shot, he ends up excelling as a soldier, and then eventually takes down an entire platoon, getting them to surrender by making them think he’s got more soldiers with him than he does.

This is almost war propaganda for the baby boomer generation, to the point where it almost doesn’t hold up now. But it’s a really good film.

Cooper is fine as York. Can’t say I love the performance, but it’s solid. I get why he won this, but this is 1941. History has dictated a clear winner all around. Let’s not pretend like it’s him.

Penny Serenade is Cary Grant’s first real dramatic film as a star. He only did this a handful of times. After a while, it seems like he avoided it because they never were particularly successful (unless they were Hitchcock, which were their own animals). Also, funnily enough, both times he did it in these early years, he was nominated for Oscars.

This film is a melodrama. Presented entirely in flashback, outside of a framing device. It’s about Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. We begin hearing that Dunne is going to leave him, and flash back to how they met. Grant is a womanizer who avows never to marry, but of course he does. They marry and move to Japan, and Dunne becomes pregnant. Naturally, there’s an earthquake, and that causes a miscarriage. Dunne then finds out she can never have children again. But they adopt. And then the unthinkable happens yet again. It’s melodrama.

Cary Grant is really, really great here. His shining moment is when he has to convince a judge that he’s a fit parent for adoption despite not having any money due to his newspaper having failed. It’s a great monologue and it’s one of the real times you see him deliver the goods, dramatically. He delivers great monologues, but not as heartwrenching as this one. I wish I could take him here. I really do. But I can’t. This isn’t Charles Foster Kane. It’s a damn shame that Grant never got his due as an actor. But he just somehow got nominated in the wrong years.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is an awesome movie. They released it originally as All That Money Can Buy (kind of like how Ace in the Hole was released as The Big Circus) and then it reverted back to its normal title over time.

It’s your classic “guy sells his soul to Satan and then satan tries to collect” story. Farmer isn’t doing well, on comes Satan to make a deal, the farmer does, and then the farmer tries to get out of it at the last minute. He enlists his friend, Daniel Webster, to help him. Webster has never lost a case, and won’t lose this one either.

Walter Huston plays Mr. Scratch. Aka Satan. Huston gets to play this one to the hilt, and he relishes every second of it. In terms of pure performance and entertainment, he rates very highly in this category.

One problem? He’s a supporting character. There’s no way you watch it and consider him a lead. That said, that doesn’t eliminate him from contention. The best performance is the best performance.

That said — Citizen Kane. So I’m not gonna take Huston, as awesome as he is in this part. But he might rate as high as second for me. We’ll see.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the original Heaven Can Wait/Down to Earth. We’ve covered this story so often by now that if you’ve been reading, you already know. Plus, it’s such a famous story, pretty much every movie buff knows it.

Robert Montgomery is a boxer who dies in a plane crash just before his championship fight. Upon getting to heaven, he tells them he wasn’t supposed to die and it wasn’t his time. Turns out, he was right. He wasn’t supposed to die and the angel who “grabbed” him made a mistake and wasn’t supposed to. So now they have a problem. Especially since they can’t return him to his original body. So they give him a temporary body while they figure out a long term solution, that of a millionaire whose wife tried to kill him so she could be with her lover. So now he’s acting as this guy, while still himself on the inside, trying to get his championship fight, and also falling in love with another woman he meets as the rich man. It’s a great story.

Montgomery is very good here, but this isn’t something that wins an Oscar. It’s fine for a nomination, but he’s an easy fifth in this one. Not a chance he wins against this competition.

Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane.

Orson Welles is Charles Foster Kane.

He wins this. This much is universally known.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Orson Welles. He’s the one who should have won this.

Now, we know he lost because they deliberately didn’t vote for the film for reasons we don’t need to get into right now.

So since we know Welles is the choice, I want to take the rest of the time to figure out who the second choice might have been.

For me, I think it would have been Cary Grant. Huston is too much of a supporting part, and Cooper, while I like him here, it’s too… I don’t know. It’s not all there for me.

Cary Grant would have been my vote, otherwise. I love that performance.

But still — Orson Welles. I mean, is there argument here on that?

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
  2. Cary Grant, Penny Serenade
  3. Walter Huston, The Devil and Daniel Webster
  4. Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
  5. Robert Montgomery, Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Rankings (films):

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Here Comes Mr. Jordan
  3. Sergeant York
  4. Penny Serenade
  5. The Devil and Daniel Webster

My Vote: Orson Welles, Citizen Kane

Recommendations:

Citizen Kane is perhaps the single most essential film of all time. So yeah.

Sergeant York is an essential film. It’s not — it’s not like it was say, thirty years ago, but it’s still an essential film. It’s Howard Hawks, it’s great, it’s a classic. Film buffs need to see it.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is probably essential. The story is essential. This version and Heaven Can Wait are both really worth seeing. Let’s call it essential for film buffs. It crosslists a lot.

Penny Serenade is a great drama, and one of Cary Grant’s best screen performances. Highly recommended all around, though not essential.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is an awesome movie. Definitely worth seeing. For film buffs who know the greatness that is Walter Huston, you should consider this a must-watch, because it’s great. High recommend.

The Last Word: Cooper holds up in the moment and in a vacuum. But history has shown that Orson Welles should have won this category, and he didn’t for very political reasons. Shit happens. So Cooper is an okay choice, but was not the right choice for this category.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1942

James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy

Ronald Colman, Random Harvest

Gary Cooper, The Pride of the Yankees

Walter Pidgeon, Mrs. Miniver

Monty Woolley, The Pied Piper

Analysis:

Yankee Doodle Dandy is a just a wonderful film. It’s got its patriotism on its sleeve, like Sergeant York. But this one doesn’t feel heavy handed.

It’s about George M. Cohan, who wrote classics like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway” and the title track. James Cagney plays him, and my god, is this the pinnacle of Cagney’s career. Sure, he made his bones in gangster pictures, but he got started in vaudeville and was a song and dance man at heart.

What he accomplishes here is undeniable. There are other really good performances in this category, but this one is great. He’s an easy winner in this category. The rest of this is gonna be about seeing if anyone can even contend with him. I suspect that yet again, nobody will.

Random Harvest is a great drama, one of the great dramas of all time that seems to hold up even better as the years go by.

Ronald Colman is an amnesiac in an institution. He was gassed in the war and has no memory of who he is. On the day the war ends, the hospital is left mostly unattended and he wanders off. He ends up in a dance hall, where he meets Greer Garson, a showgirl. She helps hide him from the orderlies and the two of them fall in love. They start a life together and become happy, despite Colman not knowing who he really is. One day, while in town, Colman is hit by a car, and suddenly all his memories come back to him. He knows who he is and what happened in the war, but no longer has any memories of Garson. So he returns to his old life, leaving Garson to track him down and try to get him to remember the love they shared.

This movie is perfect. I show this to people all the time, and it always goes over well.

Colman is really strong here, and I consider this to be the strongest of his nominations. In another year, he would contend strongly for a vote. Here, he makes a nice run, but pales in comparison to Cagney. I can probably end up with him as a second choice, but he doesn’t make it any higher than that. He’s solid, but I wouldn’t take him.

The Pride of the Yankees is a biopic of Lou Gehrig. Starring Gary Cooper.

I love this film. It doesn’t hold up as well as I’d like, but it is quite wonderful.

Cooper is very good here. But he’s pretty much doing the usual Gary Cooper thing we’re used to. He didn’t have the biggest range, but was very good at what he did. And he tended to throw in a few wrinkles that make the performance more complex than you’d think it was on initial watch. But at best he’s a second choice here. Cagney is too good to pass up. I probably put him third this time behind Colman, but that’s just because I love Random Harvest so much. I watch these movies fairly often, so I didn’t go back to analyze specifically where I’d rank them. Call them both 2 and 3, whatever order. Neither beats Cagney.

Mrs. Miniver is a really good movie that sure looked like a good winner in 1942, but really hasn’t held up all that much now.

It’s the story of a middle class family and what happens to them when war breaks out. The first half is white people problems, and their son falling for a rich girl. Then war, and they’re all worried and all that. And then they have to stand strong and all that.

Walter Pigeon is the patriarch of the family. Most of his scenes are in the earlier part of the film. He disappears for a while to go help with the evacuation of Dunkirk, and then when he returns he takes a backseat to Greer Garson. He’s solid, but mostly he feels like he came along with the film. At best he’s a fourth choice here, if not out and out fifth. I liked his character, so I might say he’s fourth. Either way, no chance he comes close to contending.

The Pied Piper is a solid little movie. Very 40s.

Monty Woolley is a cantankerous older man (stop me when you’ve heard that one before) who is on vacation when the Germans invade. He comes across a pair of orphaned children and is forced to either take them with him or leave them to be killed by the Germans. So, begrudgingly, he takes them in. And pretty soon, the number of children with him grows and grows, until eventually he’s sneaking like, a dozen kids with him back to England.

It’s a rousing little film, well made. Woolley plays the same character he played in every movie. He’s one of those guys like Charles Coburn (though Coburn did actually play different parts) who constantly played the same guy. He also had The Man Who Came to Dinner this year, and between the two, this was an assured nomination. His best performance, to me, would come with Since You Went Away in 1944, but the two performances here are very solid. I probably have him fifth now, but were this 1944, or even five years ago, I’d have had him higher. But this seems a pretty standard performance out of him. Wouldn’t take it, and probably wouldn’t put him higher than fifth.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Cagney all the way. Colman and Cooper flip flop for runner up, and the other two are just also-rans. Cagney tap dances his way over the competition here. I can’t see anyone else being the choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy
  2. Ronald Colman, Random Harvest
  3. Gary Cooper, The Pride of the Yankees
  4. Walter Pidgeon, Mrs. Miniver
  5. Monty Woolley, The Pied Piper

Rankings (films):

  1. Random Harvest
  2. Yankee Doodle Dandy
  3. The Pride of the Yankees
  4. Mrs. Miniver
  5. The Pied Piper

My Vote: James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy

Recommendations:

The Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest and Yankee Doodle Dandy are all essential Pride of the Yankees just is, Random Harvest is a movie all film buffs must see because they will love it, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is like Pride of the Yankees (or even Sergeant York) — you just know it’s essential on title alone. You need to see all of these.

Mrs. Miniver is also essential. Best Picture winner, huge 40s film. There’s really no reason for film buffs to skip this one. It checks a lot of boxes and it’s really good too. So just see it.

The Pied Piper is good. Solid recommend. Not essential, not particularly well remembered. But if you catch it on TCM one day, you will enjoy it quite a bit. So I recommend checking it out.

The Last Word: One of the great decisions of all time. Cagney is superb here, and they made the right choice. No one else would have held up as well. Had Cooper not won the year before this, maybe he’d have been okay. But other than that, Cagney is the best choice and has held up as the best choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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