The mining family in How Green Was My Valley (1941)

The 14th Academy Awards, for the film year 1941.  The nominations were announced on February 3, 1942 and the awards were held on February 26, 1942.

Best Picture:  How Green Was My Valley

  • Citizen Kane
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • The Little Foxes
  • Here Comes Mr. Jordan
  • Suspicion
  • Hold Back the Dawn
  • One Foot in Heaven
  • Sergeant York
  • Blossoms in the Dust

Most Surprising Omission:  Ball of Fire

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Fantasia

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #57

The Race: All of the news, before the year even began, was about Orson Welles, the young theater director who been given free reign and complete control of his first film at RKO.  William Randolph Hearst discovered that the film, Citizen Kane, was mostly about him and tried to keep it from ever getting released.  This simply boosted word of mouth and the reviews were raves, even if the Hearts papers pretended the film didn’t exist.  But it wasn’t a money-maker at all, let alone a big money-maker like Sergeant York.

The first awards group to chime in was the National Board of Review and they gave Kane their Best Picture.  York was left off their Top 10, but it did include John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, William Wyler’s The Little Foxes, Here Comes Mr. Jordan and The Lady Eve.  Less than two weeks later, the New York Film Critics confirmed the NBR choice by also naming Kane Best Picture.  Ford was the winner for Best Director, York won Best Actor for Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine won Best Actress for Suspicion, which had not yet opened in Los Angeles.  The win prompted RKO to get Suspicion into LA theaters and it played on January 12, the last qualifying day.

The Results: Kane was in and with nine nominations was tied for third with The Little Foxes.  Ahead of it were How Green Was Valley with 10 and Sergeant York with 11.  Suspicion and Here Comes Mr. Jordan were also in but The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, the two big Barbara Stanwyck hits of the year were passed over for melodramas like Blossoms in the Dust and One Foot in Heaven as well as Hold Back the Dawn, starring Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland (who was also nominated — the first time siblings would compete in a category) and John Huston’s amazing debut film, The Maltese Falcon.

In the end, Kane couldn’t overcome the animosity from the industry and won but a single award, for its Screenplay.  Instead it was John Ford who triumphed, winning the third of his four Best Director awards and, for the only time, winning Best Picture to go with it for How Green Was My Valley.

John Ford's How Green Was My Valley - the film that beat Citizen Kane in 1941

How Green Was My Valley

  • Director:  John Ford
  • Writer:  Philip Dunne  (from the novel by Richard Llewellyn)
  • Producer:  Darryl F. Zanuck
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Roddy McDowall, Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Donald Crisp, Sara Allgood
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Crisp), Supporting Actress (Allgood), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Sound, Interior Decoration (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Box Office Gross:  $6.00 mil
  • Release Date:  28 October 1941
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #9  (year)  /  #241  (nominees)  /  #56  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Crisp), Supporting Actress (Allgood), Editing, Cinematography

The Film:  According to Tag Gallagher’s book on John Ford, two of the key ideas on the film came from Darryl F. Zanuck.  Those two ideas, the idea of a narrator and the notion that Huw shouldn’t age through the course of the film, mean that we can forgive Ford the two biggest problems with watching the film today.  I spent the whole first ten minutes re-watching the film for the first time in 15 years thinking to myself “Shit.  That’s voicover.  McKee would not approve.”  I certainly didn’t approve.  The voiceover quickly drove me up the damn wall.  I started to think, well, at least it didn’t win for its screenplay.

Does that sound harsh?  I could be harsh about Roddy McDowell, who somehow became a star based on his performance, but there’s no need.  He’s much better than most child stars were at this age and it’s not his fault that he was expected to carry an entire film that seems to take place over the course of many years, while he clearly doesn’t age at all.  That makes the film seem somewhat disjointed, especially since he’s actually a lot better on-screen than Irving Pichel is as the adult narrator.  And besides, there are a lot more people willing to say harsh things about the film because for decades now it has been known mostly as the film that beat Citizen Kane.

I think I might have been easier, but one of the people on the Criterion Forum was of the opinion that this film actually is better than Citizen Kane, so I thought I would try to get an appreciation for the film.  But watching it again, it seemed clear.  It isn’t a four star film.  It’s a very good film, with an excellent performance from Crisp, a very good performance from Allgood, a rather solid performance from Pidgeon, great Cinematography, very solid Editing (the ending scene alone is proof enough of the Editing).  There are some great scenes and great lines, but the Screenplay over-all suffers from the voiceover.  Too many scenes are overly sentimental and the accident with Huw and his mother seems so plot driven rather than natural.  This film did deserve a nomination, but it had no business beating Citizen Kane.

"there but for the grace of God, goes God" - a description of Orson Welles on the set of Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

  • Director:  Orson Welles
  • Writer:  Orson Welles  /  Herman Mankiewicz
  • Producer:  Orson Welles
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Stars:  Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Dorothy Comingore
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Welles), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Sound, Interior Decoration (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  1 May 1941
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #5  (nominees)  /  #8  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Welles), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup

The Film:  It is what it is.  It is one of the greatest and most important films of all-time and almost certainly the most influential.  It is the screen debut of one of the most phenomenally talented men to ever step foot in Hollywood, a man who was not merely one of the greatest actors of all-time, but one of the greatest directors of all-time and a talented writer and producer as well.  It is a film that, like other contenders of the greatest film ever made like Sunset Blvd. and Chinatown, lost both Best Picture and Best Director, yet managed to win a writing Oscar.

It is a film that was made in a foolish endeavor by RKO to bring a major talent into a new field and that was almost guaranteed to lose money.  They handed absolute complete control over to young Orson Welles, who had already made a name for himself as a stage director and actor in New York, as well as the man who frightened a considerable portion of the country with his famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds.  But it was that complete control that allowed this film to be made the way it was, to break so many rules.  Welles had the intelligence to allow veteran Hollywood writer Herman Mankiewicz add contributions to the script (not to write the majority of it like Pauline Kael liked to claim).  He had the foresight to bring in Gregg Toland, the man whose deep focus would help break new ground with Kane and in the final credit, Welles actually shares the screen with Toland, acknowledging his amazing contribution.  It was never going to win the Oscar, not with the way  power was wielded at the time in Hollywood and the Academy and indeed it was booed nearly every time it was mentioned at the Academy.  But there were others who knew what they had watched and the two existing critics groups both gave the film Best Picture.

It is the story of a man, the man who runs a couple of newspapers, the man who is larger than life, but in the right perspective, shorter than the windows and smaller than the fireplace.  It is the story of his life told by everybody except the man himself.  It is a film filled with such brilliant details as getting the actual RKO news reel team to make the fake news reel that begins the film.  It is a film filled with opening shots of a mostly deserted eerie castle and with each shot, we get closer and closer to the castle from a different angle, yet the one window that is lit up manages to stay in the same place from shot to shot.  It is a film as filled with special effects shots as any major Hollywood big budget film, yet in such a perfect subtle way that not only did it not cost much, but it is almost unnoticeable to the naked eye.

And in the center is that talent.  At its heart is a performance like few others in film history.  It is the bombast of Welles himself, for if Kane is about anyone, it is less about Hearst and Luce and more about Welles himself.  He remarked that working at RKO was like having the world’s largest train set.  It is the only completely unaltered, fully funded film ever made by perhaps the most talented man to ever enter the business of film making.

If you’ve never seen it, go see it.  But if you have seen it, go see it again, this time with the commentary from Roger Ebert and you’ll be amazed at what you can learn about this film, this amazing incredible film that does it all.

"the stuff that dreams are made of"

The Maltese Falcon

  • Director:  John Huston
  • Writer:  John Huston  (from the novel by Dashiell Hammett)
  • Producer:  Hal B. Wallis
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Lee Patrick
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Greenstreet)
  • Length:  101 min
  • Genre:  Mystery (Detective)
  • Release Date:  18 October 1941
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #17  (nominees)  /  #24  (all-time)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Bogart), Supporting Actor (Greenstreet), Supporting Actor (Lorre), Supporting Actress (Patrick), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  There is a magnificent scene in 24 Hour Party People where Steve Coogan, playing Tony Wilson, stands up and faces the camera and says “This is it.  The birth of rave culture.  Where even the white man gets up to dance.”  I think of that scene now when I watch The Maltese Falcon, because I want to stand up and say “This is it.  The birth of Film Noir.  Where even the good guy isn’t so good.”

It is unfortunate that Falcon was released when it was.  It ranks among the top films of all-time as a film, in direction, in the performance by Bogart, in the editing, in the cinematography.  Yet, it only wins two of my awards — Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.  Those, of course, are because Greenstreet is better than any of the supporting players in Kane and because Kane was an original script.  Hell, John Huston, in this film, has the second greatest directorial debut of all-time.  It’s also, unfortunately, the second greatest directorial debut of 1941.  Those are things that happen when you get released in the same year as Citizen Kane.

But in some ways, it is just as influential.  For one thing, Huston story-boarded the whole film.  He knew exactly how he wanted to film to look, so rather than just do a screenplay, he made it clear from the outset the kind of look that he wanted.  Those kind of dark shadows and foggy streets are what would come to dominate the next decade with Film Noir.  And his tough talking private eye?  Well, he had already been around for 12 years, since the publication of the original novel and had two film versions, but this is where he really began.  When he is told he has a smooth answer to everything, he replies “What do you want me to do?  Learn to stutter?”  He is cold and ruthless, but not as dirty as he might seem to be.  Sam Spade might have already been in existence, but it is this version that was emulated by every actor who played a detective for the next twenty years.

In some ways, this is the film you need to watch, even more than Citizen Kane.  Because while Kane is certainly one of the greatest films ever made and opened up film in all sorts of new ways, this is one of the most pure entertaining films in history, even putting aside its historical importance.  If you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon, then what the hell have you been doing with your time?

Bette Davis in full super-bitch mode in The Little Foxes (1941)

The Little Foxes

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Lillian Hellman  (from her play)
  • Producer:  Samuel Goldwyn
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Stars:  Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, Charles Dingle, Patricia Collinge, Jessica Grayson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actress (Collinge), Supporting Actress (Wright), Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Interior Decoration (Black-and-White)
  • Oscar Record:  Most Nominations with no Wins (9) – beaten in 1977
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  20 August 1941
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #222  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actor (Dingle), Supporting Actress (Wright), Supporting Actress (Collinge), Cinematography, Score, Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  There are fans of Joan Crawford who might disagree, but I’m gonna come out and say it.  No one ever played the super-bitch like Bette Davis did.  Perhaps that’s why I never liked her the same way I liked Kate Hepburn or Ingrid Bergman.  It wasn’t just that they were so much better looking than she was.  It was that she was so believable as the ultimate bitch that I never would have wanted to meet her in real life for fear that she might kill me to get whatever she could out of it, even if it was just pleasure.

This was the second straight year where a William Wyler film starring Bette Davis managed to get nominated for Picture, Director and Actress.  And for the second straight year, it was completely shut out at the Oscars.  The two films combined to go 0 for 16.  Wyler would do better the next year, winning one of the 6 Oscars for Mrs. Miniver and would eventually go on to win 3 Oscars himself.  Davis would continue her losing streak for the rest of her career.

It’s a very good film, the story of three completely unscrupulous siblings trying to outwit each other in the hope to cash in on a very good business deal.  But each of them have their own problems.  Ben, the most forceful of the three, doesn’t have enough money to exclude his siblings.  Oscar, the weak one, must bring his son in unethically, potentially on multiple levels.  Regina, the nastiest of the three, must find a way to force her dying husband, Horace, to put up enough money to make sure the deal falls apart.  Aside from those three, we have strong performance from Herbert Marshall (again playing Davis’ weak husband), Patricia Collinge (perfect, as the poor drunk wife of the weak brother, always pushed around her whole life who gets a magnificent scene where she can prove how much more she understands than everyone thinks) and Teresa Wright, luminous in her film debut, and deserving of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  Of course, the true star is Davis, who is magnificent once again (falling just short of the Nighthawk Award – so close, it’s almost a tie with Joan Fontaine).  It’s kind of a nasty film, the way the people deal with each other.  Not really a film to watch with the ones you love.

One of the few films to have its remake nominated for Best Picture - Here Comes Mr Jordan

Here Comes Mr. Jordan

  • Director:  Alexander Hall
  • Writer:  Sidney Buchman / Seton I. Miller  (from an original story by Harry Segall)
  • Producer:  Everett Riskin
  • Studio:  Columbia
  • Stars:  Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Original Story, Actor (Montgomery), Supporting Actor (Gleason), Cinematography (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  94 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Release Date:  7 August 1941
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #240  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Actor (Montgomery), Supporting Actor (Rains)

The Film:  There are a lot of things that the remake does better.  For one thing, Warren Beatty is the perfect charmer, the kind of person you would absolutely believe would refuse to go because he belongs on earth and he knows where he belongs.  Then there are Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Charles Grodin, Dyan Cannon, all better than those who played the original roles.  But this is film is called Here Comes Mr. Jordan and the absolute delight is watching Claude Rains as Mr. Jordan.  In fact, I happened to watch this while I was half-way done with watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and it was strange to again see Rains with the snow white hair, except this time his charm and affability last through the entire film.  He is absolutely who I would believe in as a messenger from the beyond.  I would want to believe that voice.

The film itself is also quite good.  Robert Montgomery also seems like someone who could refuse to go, though more because he does such a good job of playing someone bull-headed rather than sheer force of will.  He plays the poor boxer who is accidentally taken from his body before his plane crashes, a crash he is supposed to survive (both Edward Everett Horton and Buck Henry seem born to play this kind of role).  So Mr. Jordan tries to find him another body and he ends up taking the body of a rich man who has just been killed by his wife and secretary because he wants to help a poor lovely woman.  It’s smart and romantic and charming and witty and funny.  It’s a great film, a classic that deserves to be remembered more than it seems to be today.

the film that made Olivia hate her sister Joan for winning the Oscar first: Suspicion

Suspicion

  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writer:  Samson Raphaelson  /  Joan Harrison  /  Alma Reville  (from the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles)
  • Producer:  Harry E. Edington
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Stars:  Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, May Whitty
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Fontaine), Scoring of a Dramatic Picture
  • Length:  99 min
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • Release Date:  14 November 1941
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #243  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Fontaine), Score

The Film:  I’m not certain if the producers made the right decision or not.  Hitchcock seemed to agree in his famous book with Truffaut when he says that Cary Grant could never really be taken seriously as a murderer.  But if you can’t take him seriously as one, doesn’t the whole notion of suspense in the film fall apart?  I mean, you have to, at some level, believe that he might really be trying to poison her.  Well, he’s not and if you don’t know that, I can’t help you.  By now if you care enough about film to be reading all of these, you should have seen film that’s considered a Hitchcock classic and won Best Actress.  The novel (and the original version of the script) actually had him being the killer, but in the end, the film-makers couldn’t bring themselves to have Cary Grant be a killer.

Perhaps that’s why the film falls short of excellence.  It’s a very good film and Grant does a good job of playing a cad and potential menace.  Joan Fontaine is also very good and she was the best of the nominees, even if she wasn’t as good as she was the year before (she would have come in fifth place on my list the year before – the luck of the year) and wasn’t as good as Barbara Stanwyck in her un-nominated performance in The Lady Eve.  The film has good cinematography and music and does a good job of the feel of everything, it’s suspenseful in all the ways that the best Hitchcock films are.  But in the end, it doesn’t quite come through like Rear Window or Notorious.

the film that drove Billy Wilder to become a director: Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Hold Back the Dawn

  • Director:  Mitchell Leisen
  • Writer:  Billy Wilder  /  Charles Brackett  (from the story “Memo to a Movie Producer” by Ketti Frings)
  • Producer:  Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay, Actress (de Havilland), Cinematography (Black-or-White), Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Interior Decoration (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  11 September 1941
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #15  (year)  /  #276  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Classic film lovers owe so much to Charles Boyer.  Oh sure, he was in several classic films like Algiers and Gaslight.  But what they owe him for is Billy Wilder’s directorial career.  It was in this film where Charles Boyer refused to deliver a monologue to a cockroach.  It was a funny, touching scene, a depressed European is stuck in Mexico, hoping to get into the United States.  He sees a cockroach trying to get on a mirror and he lambasts it, demanding its passport, refusing to allow him entry.  But Boyer thought the scene was ridiculous, couldn’t understand the point of talking to a roach that couldn’t talk back and talked director Mitchell Leisen out of doing the scene.  When Boyer explained this to Billy Wilder at lunch, Wilder, who wrote the scene, was incensed.  He became determined to direct his own films (as he had done in Germany) and was through allowing actors or directors to mess up his work.  He also got personal revenge on Boyer by slashing most of his dialogue in the last 30 pages.  The lesson is, don’t piss off the writer before they finish writing the film. (all of that info courtesy of Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe)

So here we have the last film written by Billy Wilder, with his partner, Charles Brackett, before he embarked on his directorial career.  And for some damn reason, it’s completely unavailable on either video or DVD.  Which is a shame because it’s an enjoyable film.  It’s also the film that gave Olivia de Havilland her Oscar nomination in 1941, placing her in direct competition with her sister, Joan Fontaine, and when Joan won, kicked off the feud between them.  De Havilland had that kind of beauty where she was perfectly believable as either the glorious Maid Marian or, like here, as the lonely school teacher, Emmy Brown, who the deceitful European would trick into marrying him so he could gain U.S. entry.  Boyer is solid, though he doesn’t have much to work with later in the film.  Most of the good lines go to Paulette Goddard, who gives the best performance she ever gave outside of a Charlie Chaplin film.  Perhaps we’ll get lucky and this will show up in some sort of Wilder box set.  It deserves a release, deserves to be seen.

Since you'll probably never get to see One Foot in Heaven, I'll tell you that this poster has very little to do with the film

One Foot in Heaven

  • Director:  Irving Rapper
  • Writer:  Casey Robinson  (from the book by Hartzell Spence)
  • Producer:  Hal B. Wallis
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Frederic March, Martha Scott
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture
  • Length:  108 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Religious)
  • Release Date:  1 November 1941
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #23  (year)  /  #374  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  This film is one of those standard films that used to get made a lot.  It’s about a family through the years, about the struggles they go through and how they manage to persevere.  That alone is nothing to get excited about.  While it does have Frederic March in the lead, it also stars Martha Scott, an actress who was never anything to get excited about.  Then there is the subject matter.  March plays Hartzell Spence, a minister, who ends up in different towns over the years and tries to build up a flock, and later, build a church that he feels is worthy of his community and of his vision.  None of this particularly interests me.  That, and I was frustrated because this was one of the last Best Picture nominees I saw, the film that actually prompted me to start getting TCM in the first place, even though it only received the one nomination (an oddity – the first Warner Bros. film to do that since 1934).

So why is it that I actually rate this film at slightly above average?  What is it that I actually find to be a solid film?  It’s not the story.  The story doesn’t particularly interest me.  Most of the performances I don’t find particularly worthwhile (they’re not bad, but they’re not worth mentioning either).  So it must be March.  Frederic March has long been one of my favorite actors, ever since I first started watching his films when I was in high school.  He is always worth watching, even on the rare occasions when he isn’t very good.  For most of this film, he moseys along as the minister who keeps trying to keep things good for his family while trying to get various new towns to like him.  But then he suddenly comes alive towards the end of the film.  He discovers that malicious gossip has been spread about a family friend and he comes roaring into the room of one of his parishioners and then we see March in all his glory.  This is the kind of man you could believe in as a minister, the kind of man who is willing to take on his flock in the name of injustice, the kind of minister who would say “If I weren’t a Christian, I would kill you.”  And it’s those few minutes that really make more of out this film that it deserves.

As for its availability, I can’t understand why it’s not readily available.  It’s a perfectly fine film with a major film star, yet, if you’re lucky, you can find it on TCM like I did.

a well-timed patriotic film, three months before Pearl Harbor: Sergeant York

Sergeant York

  • Director:  Howard Hawks
  • Writer:  Harry Chandlee  /  Abem Finkel  /  John Huston  /  Howard Koch
  • Producer:  Jesse L. Lasky  /  Hal B. Wallis
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, Margaret Wycherly, Ward Bond
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Cooper), Supporting Actor (Brennan), Supporting Actress (Wycherly), Editing, Cinematography (Black-and-White), Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Sound, Interior Decoration (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  134 min
  • Genre:  War (World War I)
  • Box Office Gross:  $4.00 mil
  • Release Date:  27 September 1941
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #25  (year)  /  #383  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Sound

The Film:  Alvin York was a tried and true American hero.  He was a man who was morally opposed to war, yet found himself in the midst of it anyway.  That has opposition to war, founded in his religion, came rather later in his life, is not glossed over in the film.  Yet, in World War I, he was the leader of a small group of men who managed to capture 132 German soldiers.  It was an amazing feat and he deserved his accolades.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he deserved a film about his life.  Or more to the point, this film.

I mean, really.  How could a film directed by Howard Hawks and written in part by John Huston, centered around such an act and with an Oscar winning performance by Gary Cooper fall so dreadfully flat?  Perhaps because it is too god damn long.  Way too god damn long.  If takes way too long to get the war.  And let’s face it, that’s the real story.  If not for that he’s just another hard drinker who managed to rehabilitate his life and find religion.  There’s nothing interesting about that story.  It happens all the time.

For that matter, there’s not much to say about Cooper’s performance either.  It’s one of his “aw, shucks” performances, yet in the year where Orson Welles was nominated for perhaps the greatest performance in the history of cinema and Humphrey Bogart failed to get nominated for one of the most iconic performances in the history of cinema, Cooper managed to win the Oscar.  And the film won for Best Editing in spite of taking forever to actually get anywhere.  1941 wasn’t too bad a year for nominations.  But they sure screwed up the winners.

the first (and most boring) of the Garson - Pidgeon films: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)

Blossoms in the Dust

  • Director:  Mervyn LeRoy
  • Writer:  Anita Loos  /  Ralph Wheelwright
  • Producer:  Irving Asher
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Garson), Cinematography (Color), Interior Decoration (Color)
  • Length:  99 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  25 July 1941
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #58  (year)  /  #423  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  This is the first of what would become an annual tradition: Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon playing a married couple, ending up with a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress nomination for Garson.  There is also an annual tradition of the films not being particularly interesting and losing a lot of their appeal over time.  Is there any screen combination that has faded so badly as Garson and Pidgeon?  I mean, really, when you look at it, these three films earned 23 Oscar nominations, including three for Garson and two for Pidgeon.  But does anyone care about these films anymore?  Mrs. Miniver is widely viewed as one of the weaker Best Picture winners and the other two films, Blossoms in the Dust and Madame Curie, are both sitting at fewer than 1000 votes on the IMDb.  People just don’t care anymore.

And the films don’t really deserve any better.  Blossoms in the Dust is the story of Edna Gladney, who, because of a couple of family tragedies, devoted her entire life to working with orphans and fighting for their rights.  She lived exactly the type of uphill, up-lifting life that Hollywood so loved back then (and thankfully don’t feel the need to celebrate quite as much as they used to).  It’s not a bad film, but it’s not really a good one either.  This is one of Garson’s weakest performances and she and Pidgeon display absolutely no chemistry.  In the end, it’s just another standard biopic that would be pretty much forgotten today if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture.  Actually, it is still pretty much forgotten today even though it was nominated for Best Picture.

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