-Year in Summary/What Did Win-
The first Oscars to take place after America’s official entry into World War II, the 14th Academy Awards had a few firsts and other notables. John Ford became the newest member of the three-time Best Director club, and the first director to win the award in consecutive years. This was also the first time documentaries were honored with their own category, though none of them were nominated for Best Picture (and, indeed, none have ever been). Orson Welles, the wunderkind of Hollywood, also became the first person nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay for a single film, though his Citizen Kane would notably only win for the script, an award shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz. The actual Best Picture winner would turn out to be John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, which still has probably the most Oscar-bait-sounding title of any film to win the award, in my opinion.
-Ranking the Nominees-
–One Foot in Heaven, being one of a few films in history nominated for Best Picture and nothing else, is getting the boot immediately. I’ve said numerous times in the past in these segments that ‘nothing films’ should be nowhere near Best Picture. Well, One Foot in Heaven takes it a step further in being not just a film that does nothing to warrant a Best Picture nom, but a film that does nothing to warrant it even being made at all. Even if you’re going through the Best Picture fields like I am, you might be forgiven if you “accidentally” managed to pass this one up.
-I hate to say it, but Blossoms in the Dust may actually be a worse film than the one below it in the ranking, just because of all the things it tries to do right and ends up getting wrong. Really, the only reason I’m not placing it dead last is because it’s not a nothing film; it actually tries, and it has some nice cinematography, a decent Greer Garson performance, and a true story behind it. But that’s it; everything else about this film was just incorrect filmmaking, and I’m more than a little bothered by it.
-With Hold Back the Dawn, you have a film that is also a film that tries and doesn’t quite get it right, but at least it doesn’t go the full way into getting it wrong instead. Much of it, for me, was the film’s silence in the score department, and while I don’t need a swooning and fully-intensive score to feel everything a film wants me to feel, when I expect there to be at least something there, musically, during a film, and all I hear is a noticeable silence, that’s a problem for me. Hilariously enough, this somehow managed a nomination for Best Original Score, though that may have been more the result of there being two categories for scores that year at the Oscars, with a combined thirty (THIRTY. THREE-ZERO.) films nominated between them, twenty for dramatic pictures alone, so that’s more on the Academy still figuring things out in the still-somewhat-early years.
–Here Comes Mr. Jordan won Best Adapted Screenplay, and now, even still, I cannot wrap my head around why or how that happened. The screenplay is the weakest aspect of this picture, which actually has some things going for it, but seeing as the screenplay is and should be the foundation, the skeleton upon which everything else about a film is built from, then this isn’t getting anywhere near a Best Picture win from me.
–The Little Foxes broke the Oscar record for the most nominations (nine) without winning any of them. I can kinda see why; the nominations for this film seemed to be totally a preconceived notion before the film was even released. I mean, you have William Wyler directing, with Bette Davis starring, Sam Goldwyn producing, a screenplay adapted from a stage play, some black-and-white cinematography that doesn’t suck; do I need to go on? The film itself, though, only manages to get by, with a couple of standouts in the acting department and a handful of scenes that do manage to really work, but that’s about it.
-The winner of this award, How Green Was My Valley has things that the other nominees don’t that I was able to discern or pick up on; namely a commitment to its production (the period and setting the film takes place in) typical of a John Ford picture, as well as a voiceover narration that adds additional gravitas to the story. Other than this, though, the film ends up far too maudlin to be consistently enjoyable, and amusingly enough given the lengths of the production value, the film seems overstuffed of all the things that films, especially Academy Award winning films, were expected to have at the time. I can see this nomination, given the sheer impressiveness of the production itself, but I can’t say this should have won the award based on that alone.
-Probably my biggest decision in this list was whether to place Suspicion above or below How Green Was My Valley. Ultimately, I’m putting it above the actual Oscar winner for one main reason: while Green is almost without doubt the more impressive production, Suspicion is still the more entertaining picture overall, even with it being just over a mere hour-and-a-half. It was a big decision for me because I know I have the tendency to laud a film that is excellent with the technicals while falling short in the major reason people go to the movies in the first place: to be entertained, and while the award that would become Best Picture started out being called Outstanding Picture, I need to not ignore the factor of a film’s entertainment value in my ranking of films up for this award. It’s ultimately a subjective vs objective debate, and I will likely flip back and forth on such a contest in future years as the struggle of it weighs in my mind, but for this year, the subjective better time at the cinema is getting the respective bump up a slot from me.
–Sergeant York ended up the highest grossing picture of the year, as well as the film with the most nominations going into the ceremony. Both of these things combined would seem to make for a heck of a motion picture, but Sergeant York is content to get by with being a pretty good film and not much more; the box office of the film being a result of constant replay after the war got going, along with the film being an excellent piece of war propaganda, either intentionally or otherwise. Thing is, the film is constructed so basically, you can pretty much see everything that’s going to happen before it does, from the developments of the plot to the incidental actions of the characters; that doesn’t really mean that Sergeant York is a bad film, but it unfortunately keeps it from being a truly great one. I can see why it got the nominations it did, but I can also see why it didn’t end up winning this particular award, and while I’m okay with the nomination, I’d agree with the Academy on this one.
–The Maltese Falcon has a lot going for it, mostly that it helped considerably to launch an entirely new genre of film, the film noir; publications years after the release of the film would cite it as the progenitor of the genre. Thus, it becomes a little difficult to judge the merits of the film in anything but hindsight; in a sense, how does The Maltese Falcon hold up in 1941, against the other films in the category, and not with the knowledge of how influential and classic it would be in the years since? That was my question during my rewatch of it for this section, and as it turns out, it still has quite a bit to offer that the films ranked lower than it up to this point pretty much don’t; solid performances, a script broken down to the last detail to ensure that nothing is extraneous (a famous claim is that Huston’s extensive notes in the script ensured that not a single line from the screenplay ended up omitted from the final cut), a new standard in chiaroscuro cinematography, and most of all, pure old-fashioned chutzpah to flaunt in the face of all the nominees of years past that settled for being a standard Hollywood film. The Maltese Falcon is not a standard Hollywood film, and for those reasons and more, it ends up being a lot better than one.
-But, for lack of a more eloquent way to put it; man, oh man, did the Academy shit the bed with this one. The 14th Academy Awards would become well known as the year that Citizen Kane failed to win Best Picture; so much so that that sentence is lifted almost verbatim off the beginning of the Wikipedia article on the ceremony. The Academy’s fear and susceptibility to the influence of William Randolph Hearst knew no limit, as almost every mention of Orson Welles or the title of Citizen Kane at the Oscars was met with boos and derision. Well, history has had the last laugh indeed; Citizen Kane is, if not the, one of the greatest films ever made, and my putting it at the top of this ranking was as much a foregone conclusion as could’ve possibly been anticipated.
-What Should’ve Been Here-
Given how generally tepid this year’s field of nominees was, it should be easy to come up with a few misses the Academy overlooked, right? Well, 1941 would seem to disagree with you; not much stands out as an obvious miss looking through the year on record. I’m a little surprised the Barbara Stanwyck picture Ball of Fire wasn’t among the Best Picture field, as it managed a few nominations otherwise. Victor Fleming had a new star-studded adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that was left off a lot of categories, but horror has never really been the Academy’s cup of tea, per se. From the 1001 list, High Sierra and Sullivan’s Travels were both released in January, which meant the Academy probably forgot about them come nomination time; possibly the same fate befell The Lady Eve, which was released in February.
-What I Would’ve Picked-
Um… Citizen Kane. I don’t even think I needed to say it.
-How Did Oscar Do?-
The field may have been as average as ever, but the failed win for Citizen Kane is a mark that the Academy will never live down. Really, I’m not sure it ever should, if the lesson is to remain as strong as it needs to be in the decades since this ceremony. You will get it right sometimes, though, Academy. Just not this year.