Thursday, June 20, 2024

Oscars 1941: Best Actress

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were sisters. They were also rivals. Things didn't get as bad as Cain and Abel, but they were notoriously prickly about each other, and by the time De Havilland won her first Oscar for 1946's To Each His Own, they were barely on speaking terms. Fontaine frequently blamed jealousy, especially since the two were nominated against each other in 1941, each for their second nomination...and Joan won:

Apparently, Olivia was less offended by that and more offended by an insulting (but pretty funny) remark Fontaine made about her sister's new husband ("He's had four wives and written one book. Too bad it isn't the other way around."). And one doubts Olivia could have been too shocked by her sister winning: Joan had just starred in the previous year's Best Picture winner and she had won the New York Film Critics' Circle prize. 

But then, who knows? Maybe De Havilland was rooting for Bette Davis or even someone else. It is, after all, a lineup full of rich performances:

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Oscars 1941: Best Actor

Gary Cooper was the star of the biggest hit of the year, a heartthrob and a serious actor who had headlined the first Best Picture winner and many nominees in that category since. A previous nominee, is it any surprise that it was he who took home the prize?

Not really. But I do feel...well, let's talk.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Oscars 1941: Best Supporting Actor

The Supporting Acting categories began in 1936, making this the sixth ceremony to award them. This was also only the third time someone other than Walter Brennan won - in this case, Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley:

Two things you undoubtedly noticed. Both Crisp and presenter James Stewart are in their military uniforms - the War had finally come to the United States, and Hollywood stars were doing their part same as any American citizen (except John Wayne). The other thing: Crisp is holding a plaque with a miniature Oscar as part of it. Yes, though good enough for an award, the character actors nominated in Supporting did not initially receive Oscar statuettes, but rather this more cradleable honor. It wasn’t until two years later, at the ceremony honoring the films of 1943, that the Academy would put everyone on an equal winning field.

These were the performers competing for the plaque:

Monday, June 17, 2024

Oscars 1941: Best Supporting Actress

1941's Best Supporting Actress lineup has all the category's favorites. You have not just one devoted mother, but two; not just one tragically good conscience, but two; of those two, one is a beautiful ingenue making a strong debut; and then you have the scene-stealing diva, who walks away with the prize:

Can't blame them. It's a role and performance that's better than the film it's in. Besides, Astor was a genuine star, and she had her role in The Maltese Falcon for viewers to consider, too. But even if it's not surprising, was it deserving? Let's talk:

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Oscar 1941: Best Picture of the Year

It's taken me a long time to figure out how to write this one. Ranking the Best Picture nominees of 1941 is tough because, truthfully, I don't think any of these are bad. There's at least one movie I dislike but, even that one is well-mounted and, I think, well-meaning enough that one can't just dismiss it out of hand. Too, there are a few that I personally like but think a Best Picture nomination is a little much...even if I can't quite put a finger on why. My Top Three are no-brainers but, in what order? And, admittedly, there are some I know I admire but do not necessarily recall specifics as to why. How does one rank that?

I did my best. Here are the ten nominees for Best Picture, in ascending order of how I like them:

Thursday, June 13, 2024

1941: Men and Monsters

What was it about How Green Was My Valley that spoke to Oscar voters? The genuine quality of the film itself? Was it that it was the last of the Best Picture nominees to come out, recency bias doing its thing again? Maybe both - maybe, too, its story of a boy growing up in a close-knit family in a close-knit town learning that the world can be cruel and home was being wrecked in a way that wouldn't make it home ever again struck a chord with a country that just found itself thrust into the war they'd all been watching.

One watches all the movies from this year and last and figures America was gearing up anyway. All the films about our heroic Navy men, our pilots, the comedies about registering for the draft or being enlisted, the brave pseudo-comedies about rebels who went overseas, the imports about our British cousins fighting the good fight. But it is one thing to make movies about how we'll enter the War on our terms, to watch movies about other people's war; it is quite another thing altogether to wake up to an attack - one that, even at the time, people spoke of being preventable, had the government actually paid attention and acted on its suspicions and intelligence.

And so this December, the cinema is full of meditations on the end of innocence, alienation, government nincompoopery...there's even a ball of fire, though that one's a much more fun one to consider than the infernos that were to come:

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

1941: One is Enough

Will we ever again get a lone Best Picture nominee? In the first 16 years of the Academy Awards, it happened all the time, starting with the 1928 gangster pic The Racket at the very first ceremony, when there were only three official nominees in the category. Grand Hotel even won Best Picture without being nominated in any other category, one of four Best Picture nominees that year up for the big prize and nothing else.

And it happened in 1941, with One Foot in Heaven. Based on a memoir by journalist Hartzell Spence about his Methodist minister father, it follows a family from the parents' marriage through the arrival of children and the attempt to build a community in several places, what with ministers being bounced from place to place as needed by The Church. They deal with the changing world and their own struggle to navigate their own human frailties with the added pressure of elevated status in their community. Why this film for Best Picture, I do not know. I can't readily find information on its box office and the reviews appear to me to be positive but not overly enthusiastic. Of course, I've also seen the movie, did so before knowing it was a lone Best Picture nominee but - God as my witness, this is the truth - thought, "Well, this is the kind of movie I can see getting Best Picture and nothing else." An increasingly rare feat, even at the time: the previous two ceremonies' Best Picture nominees had other nods to boost their profiles; two years after this, The Ox-Bow Incident became the last lone Best Picture nominee.

More common, especially with a lineup of ten, is the film with one or two other nominations. That happens even today: Past Lives was only nominated for Picture and Original Screenplay, Women Talking for Picture and Adapted Screenplay (which it won!), Triangle of Sadness for Picture, Director and Original name but a few. In 1941, this seemed to be the go-to for handling successful crime films, such as The Maltese Falcon or Suspicion. The latter was the follow-up to the previous year's Best Picture winner Rebecca, with the same director Alfred Hitchcock, the same star Joan Fontaine, even a similar plot with the spinster who falls for a man with secrets, though this time it's Cary Grant instead of Laurence Olivier. A commercial hit and winner of critics' prizes before the nominations, it's not entirely surprising that it found its way here, though it may be surprising that its only other nominations were for Best Actress (which it won!) and Best Score.

Funny, to think that they're the only Best Picture nominees among the nine November releases below, yet they share the same number of nominations as five of them. Here they are:

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

1941: So Nice, They Told It Thrice

The other day - well, at least once a week - I heard someone complain, either on social media or actually in person, that Hollywood has no new ideas. This has always been an odd complaint to me since so many acknowledged classics are either biopics or adaptations of novels or plays - can't exactly call it a new idea when it's already been a New York Times bestseller or a Pulitzer Prize winner for drama - or, and I confess this is rarely the case, remakes. Among the Top Ten of the American Film Institute's all-time American films: Citizen Kane, a roman á clef of William Randolph Hearst; The Godfather, an adaptation of a lurid pulp novel; Casablanca, an adaptation of an unpublished play that also borrows a hint of setting from Algiers and Pépé le Moko; Raging Bull, a biopic based on a memoir; Singin' in the Rain, with a central plot point borrowed from Hit Parade of 1941; Gone with the Wind, adapted from a bestselling novel; Lawrence of Arabia, a biopic based on biographies; Schindler's List, based on a historical novel; and The Wizard of Oz, the fourth film to bear that title (or some variant thereof) adapted from a series of popular children's books and plays. I've still never seen Vertigo, so I can't speak to its origins.

And at #31 on the AFI Top 100 is The Maltese Falcon, nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, which earned almost five times its budget and continues to make money. I've discussed this movie with teens and twenty-somethings, with elders and sixty-whatsits. This most legendary of film noirs, with its dynamic supporting cast and iconic Bogart performance, is not only adapted from a 1930 novel (eleven years previously!), it is the third film adaptation of the novel! The first appeared in 1930, but I haven't seen it; the second was a comic send-up of the premise, 1936's Satan Met a Lady, which I have seen, regrettably. Wasn't it Michael Caine who said we should stop remaking good movies and remake the bad ones with good premises? Guess he was right...though surely The Thing and The Fly can count as exceptions to the first?

This third Falcon came out on October 18th. In this grouping, it's squarely in the middle, surrounded on either side by figures perfect for the Halloween season: the ghost of Smilin' Through, the devil of All That Money Can Buy (directed by Satan Met a Lady's William Dieterle), and the costumed alter egos of All-American Co-Ed and Dumbo...

Monday, June 10, 2024

1941: I Think They Think We're Going To War

You know we're getting closer to "Oscar Season" because every single movie here - even the Hal Roach barracks comedy Tanks a Million, which runs a mere 50 minutes - got an Oscar nomination. Inevitable when most of the categories allow for ten nominees, at least...

Among the films this month: Hold Back the Dawn and Sergeant York. The former, nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, has Charles Boyer once again romancing someone he shouldn't and Olivia de Havilland making good on her Gone with the Wind breakthrough. Sergeant York was more of a phenomenon: the #1 film of 1941, making over $8.3 million on a $1.7 million budget; nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (even though the titular hero's source memoir is credited right there on screen); winner of two Academy Awards; and did more to encourage enlistment than any propaganda or attack on US soil could. Even if this was a year of only five nominees, Sergeant York would have had a spot here.

It's not the only war-themed movie here, either. At this point, America was just waiting for a reason to join the fight, and Hollywood was doing its part to get everyone ready. Besides Sergeant York, you have Tanks a Million, about draftees; You'll Never Get Rich, about voluntary enlistees; and A Yank in the R.A.F., about individual Americans going overseas to join in the fight against fascism. It's interesting that they're all comedies or "light" in tone: don't worry, boys, we're not at war yet, it's a bit of an adventure, a jape, come serve your country and have a ball while doing so. At this point, we are just three months away from reality hitting us in the face.

The films:

Sunday, June 9, 2024

1941: And Now The Season Starts

August is the last month of summer, and in 1941, it was the first major release month for Best Picture contenders. Sure, Citizen Kane came in Spring, but August gave us An Inspirational True Story, A Surprise Comedy Hit, and An Adaptation Of An Award-Winning Stage Production. Oscar-wise, hard to beat that combination.

The ITS is Blossoms in the Dust, a financial success that certified Greer Garson (we last saw her in Pride and Prejudice) as one of the biggest stars of the decade - as you'll see, she had two hits this one month. A bio of Texas philanthropist Edna Gladney, Garson herself would become a Texas philanthropist decades later, spending her retirement years in Dallas and helping to fund various universities' arts programs. Blossoms in the Dust was nominated for four Academy Awards and, I think, helped pave the way to her Oscar win for the next year's Mrs. Miniver.

The SCH is Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the movie with everything: sports, romance, angels, reincarnation, murder. The surprise is how well it did with audiences, critics, and the Oscars, but I suppose every year has at least one of those (Barbie, Juno, Working Girl, It Happened One Night). It's also one of those foolproof stories, a guaranteed success no matter when it comes out: it was later remade as Heaven Can Wait (#5 film of 1978, nine Academy Award nominations) and Down to Earth (didn't break the 2001 Top Ten nor earn any Oscar nods, but it made a profit!). Here Comes Mr. Jordan was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

The AOAAWSP is The Little Foxes. On Broadway, Tallulah Bankhead originated the role Bette Davis played in the film and there was bad blood between them ever since (well, bad on Bankhead's side; Davis was an admirer who wondered why Bankhead wasn't cast). A success on both stage and screen, both were followed by a prequel, Another Part of the Forest, one of my favorite movies of 1948. Strange to me that there's never even been a Great Performances remake; the only other adaptations of this work were all before 1970, the last American one in 1956 - starring, of all people, the aforementioned Greer Garson. The Little Foxes was nominated for nine Academy Awards.

But they were not the only films released in August, naturally. Here are the ten I saw:

Friday, June 7, 2024

1941: The Uninvited

This is the last bit of 1941 for this week, and we end it with Marx (Brothers, of course), Nazis, dragons, and Miami - you know, something for everyone. Or something for no one, for, believe it or not, this is our first entry with zero Academy Award-nominated films! Read on:

Thursday, June 6, 2024

1941: The Legend Arrives

Ah, now we come to it, the first of the year's Best Picture nominees. It also happens to be, quite possibly, the most famous Best Picture loser of all time: Citizen Kane.

Dubbed the greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute, inspiration for two award-winning films (HBO's RKO 291 and Netflix's Mank), Citizen Kane was the film debut of theatre and radio wünderkind Orson Welles: at 20, he had directed the famous Voodoo Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project; at 23, he rocketed to fame thanks to his infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. He started Citizen Kane when he was 24, filmed at 25, and released the very week of his 26th birthday. Its depiction of a newspaper magnate with political ambitions who tosses his wife aside for a showbiz starlet and becomes increasingly tyrannical hit a nerve with William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate with political ambition who maintained a long affair with showbiz starlet Marion Davies, and he used his power to knock down the film's reputation and release before it was even finished. 

Still, it went on to be declared Best Film by that year's National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics' Circle and garnered nine Oscar nominations. And, of course, won out in the end, historically. But it did not just show up all by itself one May morning. Here's what surrounded it:

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

1941: Takesies Backsies

If yesterday was an embarrassment of riches, today is more standard fare: some good, some OK. We've got Oscar nominated films you don't remember, non-nominated films that went on to become classics, and one movie that had its nomination removed...

Sunday, June 2, 2024

1941: Remember 1940?

Well, when I said I had given my last word on 1940, I hadn't counted on the release strategies of 80+ years ago. There were no digital hard drives, no links to download, but physical reels of film that had to be transported place to place, sometimes held over at single-screen venues for a year or more, their general release separate from their "official" release date (for example, 1941 is the year Gone with the Wind finally entered general release after a year of being screened as a roadshow picture). And not every movie started with a Los Angeles release, either, even though you still needed to play there at least a week to qualify.

And so, the first three films of 1941 are from late 1940. I don't know when they finally got to LA, but  These three were: