Sunday, June 16, 2024

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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:

10. Sergeant York
Warner Bros.

Still surprised this one didn't win the whole thing - eleven nominations, after all, plus the U.S. had just entered The War and here was a movie about a man who learned that to kill in combat does not contradict your faith, your belief in non-violence. It is a film that believes in the power of God to change men's souls, and also that the other soldier is to be seen like a turkey at a shoot, he must be dehumanized, he must be a target. It also says that it is bizarre to create a celebrity out of a man fir what he does on the battlefield, but also that such men that shun the spotlight deserve it most, and deserve to be treated as heroes. It is a mass of contradictions. Naturally it was a hit, I don't think there can be any message more in keeping with the American spirit than, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition"; the movie's attempts to sand that into a philosophy that makes any kind of sense are, frankly, moronic, almost cynical. As I said above, it is extremely well-made - turns out Howard Hawks knows what he's doing! - and because it is so well-made, it makes it that much more repellant to me.

9. Hold Back the Dawn

I genuinely liked this movie about a gigolo who tries to game his way into U.S. citizenship, only to fall in love with the genuinely good person he's used as a mark. Rather than have a whole good immigrant/bad immigrant conversation, I think it raises interesting points about the process of immigration, naturalization, citizenship, etc. Everything takes so long! People die waiting for a country to call home! Good performances from Charles Boyer, Paulette Goddard, and Olivia de Havilland, convincing arcs. But why is it bookended by Boyer's character, disheveled, telling his story to this film's director, Mitchell Leisen, while on the set of Leisen's I Wanted Wings? We even watch Veronica Lake do part of a scene while waiting for Boyer to talk to him. Based on the short story "Memo to a Movie Producer," there appears to me to be some cynicism about an immigrant gigolo making easy, big bucks by selling his story to Hollywood - a cynicism that I don't think meshes well with the rest of the picture.

8. Suspicion
RKO Radio

Director Alfred Hitchcock, star Joan Fontaine, and composer Franz Waxman reunite just one year after their triumphant Rebecca with another story about an Englishwoman who weds a charming man she barely knows and suspects his subsequent strange behavior may cover something sinister. It is stressed from the word go that part of her desperation to marry is, well, desperation, after she hears her parents talking about what a spinster she is. So what if the guy flirts with every woman and changes his business pursuits every three weeks and owes money all over the county - he's Cary Grant! She's willing to overlook his embezzling and general sloppiness in possibly plotting her murder - she'll even drink milk she thinks may be poisoned! - because what else is she going to do? Terrific study of paranoia, yes, but also a great early depiction of someone who realizes they're in an abusive relationship but cannot get out, cannot cry out. Much is made of the ending being so ambiguous as to cut the whole thing off at the knees, and while I agree that throughout there is a weird soft-pedaling regarding Grant's guilt, there is enough there to make that ending feel like one final lie...

7. One Foot in Heaven
Warner Bros.

A perfectly pleasant movie about life for a Methodist minister and his family. It's episodic, like all such films about a significant parent: Life with Father, I Remember Mama, etc. I think it's healthy to appreciate that preachers, however they may feel about being "called" to Christ, are still people, capable of arguments, impatience, pettiness - but also deserving of updated homes, updated churches, and respect, not because of their position, but because they are servants of Christ, not of the Elders of the Church. It's a beautiful testament, too, to the Church's place in a community, as perhaps the only place where everyone is on an equal playing field, rich or poor, boss or servant: on Sunday, all come as Sinners seeking Wisdom, Comfort, and Guidance. All are humbled by a belief in the Divine, and much of the film is devoted to our minister's attempts to get this through the head of his flock - which is ever-changing, as every church answers to an organization that moves ministers around according to their needs and the needs of the Methodist Church At Large, wild to me (no wonder parishioners treat them so shabbily!). Why so low? Because the others are even better.

6. Blossoms in the Dust

The sister she was raised with was a foundling; when that sister commits suicide after her fiance's parents object to her (lack of) background, Edna Gladney devotes to her life to the care and fostering of orphans and unwanted children. She charges full steam ahead, fighting even the government to secure homes and protect the privacy of the unwanted. A noble work, yes, but Blossoms in the Dust assures us that this is about a woman, not a saint, one with a strong personality and not always the best judgment, financially, politically (she is not one to coo or convince, but to show idiots the door), or even for herself - the line between fostering and parenting is blurred a few times, and Gladney must make tough decisions to ensure what's best for the child, not her feelings. Fair-minded writing, beautiful costumes and sets, and such chemistry between Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon - they went on to make seven more films together!

5. Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Well, isn't this one fun? Violent death and murder are interesting subjects for a comedy; here's a film that pulls it off, with a boxer flying his private plane into a mountain and, with help from the titular angel, taking the body of a wealthy old man recently murdered. Plenty of laughs about the old man's new personality and the roping in of the boxer's old coach on the whole wild plot, not to mention the shock his reappearance gives his murderers (his hot young wife and his handsome secretary), plus a romance with a sweet woman who falls for the soul and not the body. Those laughs and that romance tell a story not just of resurrection or reincarnation, but redemption! Not only does our boxer learn to care for others and redeem himself as an athlete, but he allows the rich man he's possessed to make right his own selfishness before it's too late. It's a lovely message hidden in a farce.

4. The Little Foxes
Samuel Goldwyn Productions

Southern drama as the Hubbard clan - hated, or at least resented, by many in town - more broke than their dress and surroundings would indicate, jump at the chance to sell the family business...but it's brothers vs. sister as everyone crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses each other to ensure their security at the expense of their siblings. William Wyler, Bette Davis, and Herbert Marshall reunite after The Letter; Patricia Collinge, Charles Dingle, John Marriott, and Carl Benton Reid reunite after the original stage production, which closed in 1940 after 410 performances. Everyone's familiarity and comfort with each other makes for a dynamite ensemble, a believable family - even treating Davis, the one "blood relation" who wasn't with this group for a full year, like some aberration is an amusing meta detail. Now, truth, I prefer Another Part of the Forest, the prequel, which I think has a better understanding of the peculiar rot of the post-Civil War South and of what exactly the family's economic status is. But this film is still dynamite. If that final shot doesn't get you, you have no pulse, no humanity.

3. How Green Was My Valley
20th Century-Fox

Its influence can be seen in similarly bittersweet childhood films like Hope and Glory and Belfast - yet, unlike those, it's not autobiographical, though that doesn't make it less personal. You can feel the connection John Ford and Philip Dunne and their large ensemble feel for this family of Welsh miners, anchored by Donald Crisp's patriarch and Roddy McDowall as young Huw, the boy through whose eyes we witness beauty and tragedy, romances unrequited, work interrupted, family split apart. There are about a hundred moments that put a lump in your throat; many are comparable to one's own memories (well, mine, at any rate). If there's nostalgia, it's for what could have been, not what actually was, for every time there's some promise, there's some sacrifice to go with it: Huw is educated, but is beaten by Welsh-hating English, classmates and teacher both; when he decides it's his duty to join his brothers and father in the mine, you've never seen such broken-hearted parents, even as they recognize why he makes the decision. Devastating moment, one of many, honestly. But I don't want to overemphasize the sad bits, it's bittersweet but full of warmth and beauty, certainly visually. Its reputation as the movie that dared beat Citizen Kane kind of misses what a triumph of a motion picture this is (see also: Ordinary People, Shakespeare in Love).

2. The Maltese Falcon
Warner Bros.

I'm sure someone will feel I'm selling this one short, but The Maltese Falcon is that rare film whose success with audiences and the Academy is not due to some extra layer of depth, rather it's just a perfect, shining example of its particular genre, so perfect it transcends it being "a good crime picture" and is just A Great Movie. Bogart as Sam Spade, who doesn't like cops but seems to be a good guy yet also seems to be a louse in ways that count; Mary Astor as the woman who hasn't told a single truth but for some reason we want to trust, she's so desperate and broken and pleading; Lee Patrick as the faithful secretary who's seen it all, a woman whose professionalism and Goodness make you cut her employers some slack; Peter Lorre as Joe Cairo, just the best; Sydney Greenstreet, we'll talk more about later. That dialogue - as writer and director, John Huston crafts and guides and reigns in every conversation, every scene spectacularly, they fence, they fight, they fuck, but all with their words first. And cinematographer Arthur Edeson, what he does with Venetian blinds changed the language of cinema, of genre signifiers! This movie is the stuff that dreams are made of.

1. Citizen Kane

OK, but my vote still goes to Citizen Kane. It's too good! Everything I like about movies is here, opening with a foreboding score under images of a Gothic castle in Florida, getting us into fast-talking journalists with a story to tell and a secret to unearth, and now we've a character study about a man who represents the spirit of American capitalism and, therefore, the soul of the nation and the ease with which it can erode - too much power, too much wealth, it inures you, limits you, you become stultified by the lack of challenge and the exclusion of all that could bring you pain...and honesty. Yeah, I love that. The current trend for filmmakers is to wave away any criticism by saying, "Well, it was never supposed to be Citizen Kane," but I'm sorry, going by the dialogue, the characterizations, the structure, the way it's shot, this film is clearly out to entertain you. There's a musical number! Adultery! A screaming cockatoo! What's not to love?

Tomorrow, a look at Oscar's Best Supporting Actress: Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley), Mary Astor (The Great Lie), Patricia Collinge (The Little Foxes), Teresa Wright (The Little Foxes), and Margaret Wycherly (Sergeant York).

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