Revisiting the Academy Awards: 1941

As part of a lead-up to this year’s Awards Season, Wells will be offering a series of posts on the topic.

By Miriam E. Wells, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

At the 17th Academy Awards honoring 1944’s films, the voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were only given five choices for Best Picture, but the list of contenders for 1941 was much longer — there were ten nominees from which to choose. This must have precipitated some anxiety among the convocation of voters at the 14th Academy Awards. In the end, they selected How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion, and The Little Foxes.

Family sagas are almost as appealing to the members of the Academy as epics and “important” pictures, and How Green Was My Valley, a Welsh mining family saga based on a Richard Llewellyn novel, is a triple threat. In a less illustrious year for the movies, it would have done deservedly well. But in 1941, the competition was too good for this film to have dominated. Most people looking casually at the list of nominees will express dismay that Best Picture was not bestowed upon Citizen Kane — after all, we all know that Citizen Kane is the best American film ever made…right?

Admittedly, Citizen Kane is a gorgeous exercise in deep-focus, black-and-white scene compositions. And who can forget the whispered deathbed wish, “Rosebud!” But Citizen Kane is gripped the entire way through by that deathly cold hand that drops the snow globe. The Maltese Falcon, on the other hand, is hot with human emotion.

The film was adapted from the Dashiell Hammett detective novel of the same name, and is a decidedly middlebrow entertainment. That’s probably why it was easy to discount as a possible Best Picture. Detective stories, along with musicals, science fiction, and children’s films have a hard time winning prestigious awards. But this detective story stars Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled Sam Spade, and he has a fine nemesis in Mary Astor. No one need be told that Peter Lorre stole the show as Joel Cairo. Lorre was known in the industry for minor ad libs to dialogue and physical direction that added depth and humor to all his characters. Go watch that cane caressing scene again and you will see what I mean.

The Little Foxes was 1941’s surprise loser. After being nominated for nine awards, it received none. Perhaps its long-belated recognition came in the form of the Carol Burnett parody, “The Little Foxies!” While The Little Foxes has not experienced the long-term popularity of Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, it did star Bette Davis. And there is nothing more frightening in the world than Bette Davis playing a calculating Southern matriarch in chalk-white makeup. Weirdly, the choice of How Green Was My Valley over The Little Foxes involved a probably unintentional slight to William Wyler. Wyler was the original director for Valley, but Twentieth Century Fox replaced him with John Ford. Wyler went on to direct Foxes, but would have to wait until 1942 to win an award — for Mrs. Miniver.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion got a bit of recognition in the form of an award to Joan Fontaine. Fontaine was Hitchcock’s only leading lady to get an award — which says more about the scripts of Hitchcock’s movies than the actresses themselves. Even Dumbo got a piece of the pie in 1941 with an award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. In recent years, Dumbo has gotten a bit of flak for racist stereotypes, but I encourage you to re-watch the crow scene and judge for yourself whether the film deserves this criticism. Whatever you decide, the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence is still one of Disney’s most trippy delights.

Sadly, one of my personal favorites of the year, Tom, Dick, and Harry, came away with nothing—not even Best Original Screenplay. However, Tom, Dick, and Harry, which stars Ginger Rogers and Burgess Meredith, is a sweet and funny entertainment that is at least as good, if not better, than most Doris Day or Bing Crosby flicks.

How Green Was My Valley is fine and serious film, and really its biggest flaw has been its lack of longevity and popularity with audiences. Citizen Kane might easily have taken away the Best Director or Best Cinematography awards, but it took future generations of filmgoers to recognize its genius. However, America’s heart belongs not to the icy cold Citizen Kane, but to the film in which all the characters are warm-blooded: The Maltese Falcon.

Verdict: The Maltese Falcon

Relevant Links:

Writers Return, Rev up Oscar Night

Vanderbilt Heard Library Receives Golden Globe

  1. Mary Wilson said:

    hi miriam, when i was in 10th grade (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) the powers introduced a new educational concept, a humanities course that everyone took and that was not discipline specific. every week there was a lecture/reading for all, and then we would discuss it. this is a long way of saying that one of the whole school events was watching ‘how green was my valley’. i didn’t see citizen kane until i was a sophisticated graduate student. thx for reminding me of this.

    • mewsea said:

      Mary, did you enjoy it? I can’t say I would have sought it out in high school, and I loved 40s movies. Apocalypse Now and The Killing Fields were my favorite films in 10th grade though–yikes.

      • mary wilson said:

        well, yes. though i wondered why it seemed so obscure, unlike, say, citizen kane.

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